The Counties Manukau PIC Steelers will take no further part in this year’s Bunnings Warehouse NPC competition after the government turned down a third application from New Zealand Rugby for a border exemption on Thursday.
The three Auckland-based provinces were not able to return to the NPC when the other provinces got back into action a fortnight ago due to the ongoing lockdown.
NZR had hoped North Harbour, Auckland and Counties Manukau would be able to re-join later as the situation eased in the region but with Auckland still under strict lockdown rules, they turned their attention to getting approval for the teams to move to Taupo and base themselves there in strict bubbles until Auckland opened up.
However, a third application to the government for permission to cross the border was today rejected, meaning the three Auckland provinces have run out of time to re-join the competition.
NZR has announced it will now work with Counties Manukau, Auckland and North Harbour to stand up a “Super City” competition in the place of their NPC fixtures in which the three teams will play each other in a home-and-away series.
“I don’t think the word disappointing even comes close to how we are all feeling right now,” CMRFU chief executive Aaron Lawton said.
“We are absolutely devastated. We put so much work into our campaign. Our players and coaching staff have carried on with the expectation of getting back out there, our amazing sponsors and fans have stood right by us and it is so deflating to be told it can’t happen.
“We felt we had a really strong case for an exemption to cross the border given our players and management team are vaccinated and we had outlined some incredibly strict COVID protocols we were prepared to follow.
“The impact of today’s decision is undoubtedly going to be felt by a lot of hard-working players and staff who were just wanting to do their jobs, while also taking incredible care to protect the health of our community.”
Lawton added that the PIC Steelers’ inability to return to the NPC this year would lead to some financial uncertainty for the Union.
“The financial ramifications are significant; we are committed to all of our costs but there is not the revenue there to go with it,” he said.
“We will attempt to play some games against the other Auckland-based sides. The players are super keen to play but we will need some luck with restrictions lifting for that to be possible too.
“We owe that to our fans and sponsors and will continue to do what we can to get back out on the field again.”
Lawton said he addressed the playing group and the Union’s staff this morning and there was a sense of shock about what has transpired.
On the positive side, he said the Union’s sponsors had shown incredible support throughout the uncertainty to stick by their team.
“Obviously today is a really tough day but at the same time I want to pay tribute to our players, staff and sponsors who have stood by us throughout this ordeal. Their support hasn’t wavered, and I can’t thank them enough for that.
“I just hope we can repay them all by getting some form of rugby back on Navigation Homes Stadium again before the end of this year.”
The Bunnings NPC season will continue with the 11 Provincial Unions outside of the Auckland region, and NZR has confirmed there are plans to stand up a separate Super City Series for Auckland, North Harbour and Counties-Manukau once they are able to resume playing.
Steve Lancaster, NZR General Manager of Community Rugby said:
“We believe we had a compelling case to safely move our teams out of the Auckland region without undue risk to the public, but we know Government are operating in a difficult and complex world due to COVID-19.
“We’re really disappointed for our Auckland based teams. It is an extremely difficult time with a lot of uncertainty for everyone involved in those teams, but we’re grateful the competition can continue for the majority of our teams. We know we aren’t the only ones being affected by the current COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are looking at the option of holding a Super City Series which would provide some meaningful rugby for Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau and some live rugby for fans and supporters in the region. We are working with the Auckland based teams and key partners on the feasibility of making this happen.”
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