COVID chaos puts further New Zealand Super Rugby Pacific fixtures in doubt

Moana Pasifika are staring down the prospect of a fourth postponed Super Rugby Pacific match as COVID continues to wreak havoc with the New Zealand fixtures in the new-look tournament.

The Highlanders on Tuesday cancelled training as they deal with an outbreak of cases across their squad, while the Blues have also been affected after they were last week forced to scratch several players from their team that defeated the southerners on Friday.

With the Highlanders due to face Moana Pasifika on Friday, Tony Brown's team may yet be unable to field a fit 23 to take on the expansion franchise.

Moana Pasifika have already seen three of their first four Super Rugby matches postponed, after they were the first team to suffer an outbreak of COVID among their playing ranks. That forced the rearranging of their Round 1 and 2 matches, against the Blues and Chiefs respectively, meaning they will play midweek catch-up games on March 29 and April 12.

But after those changes were announced last week, Moana then also saw their Round 4 match postponed after an outbreak of COVID at the Hurricanes, meaning they will likely face at least one further midweek catch-up match unless Super Rugby officials decide to split the four competition points at two apiece.

The Crusaders' Round 5 match with the Blues has already been flipped from Sunday to Saturday, and the Chiefs-Hurricanes moved to Sunday, to help accommodate the Wellington-based franchise as they welcome back players from isolation.

But that now may have created an issue for the Blues, who are experiencing COVID issues of their own.

"The Blues can confirm that COVID is further impacting our squad," Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said in a statement. "We are currently working through the full impacts of this situation, including in regards to this week's fixture against the Crusaders.

"Both the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby are fully aware of the current situation. We are not in a position to add any other details at this stage, but will be able to speak further on developments hopefully by tomorrow."

Super Rugby officials feared an outbreak of COVID could disrupt the season before it kicked off, with Rugby Australia boss Andy Marinos at one stage even flagging the possibility of depowered scrums if there was a scenario where a team's front-row contingent had been forced into isolation by the virus.

Fortunately for the Australian contingent, the Omicron variant brought a surge in cases across the playing group in January, meaning many players caught the virus before the season kicked off.

But the variant was slower to take hold in New Zealand, instead emerging on the eve of the competition and resulting in the situation the tournament finds itself in now.

New Zealand on Tuesday recorded 21,616 community cases of COVID-19, with the Omicron subvariant BA.2 now the dominant variant in the outbreak.

"New Zealand Rugby can confirm that COVID is further impacting a number of our squads," Chris Lendrum, NZR's head of professional rugby, said via a statement on Tuesday.

"We are working through the full impacts of this situation, including in regards to this week's fixtures and will announce any changes in due course. We are not in a position to add any other details at this stage, but will be able to speak further on developments hopefully by tomorrow."

It has certainly been a less than ideal scenario for expansion franchise Moana Pasifika, who have only graced the field once this season, while fellow new boys, Fijian Drua, have played all four of their games across the ditch in Australia, improving with every match along the way.

Meanwhile, a decision has yet to be made about the crossover fixtures of the tournament.

New Zealand's five franchises and Moana Pasifika are due to travel across the ditch for the inaugural Super Round from April 22, when all games will be played at Melbourne's AAMI Park.

The prospect of those six teams remaining in Australia after Super Round to play out the rest of the tournament remains a possibility, as the New Zealand Government moves to finalise its plans for the reopening of its international border.

But that would be a kick in the teeth for New Zealand's franchises, who are already facing a crippling financial loss after the first two weeks of the competition were played in the Queenstown bubble before no crowds, while the clubs have only been able to host prohibitively small numbers in Rounds 3 and 4.

NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson said recently he had been in talks with the New Zealand Government to try and find a better arrangement for the clubs when it came to crowd attendances.

"The Super Rugby clubs are in a really, truly, challenging financial situation and as a result of that, that impacts on all of New Zealand rugby.

"That's something that we continue to make a case for to Government and health authorities."