Women players worry whether game will return as NZ Super Rugby gears up

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - While New Zealand’s Super Rugby players are preparing to return to their teams on Monday before a domestic competition starts next month, the country’s elite women players are concerned at a lack of clarity on whether they will play at all this season.

Most cross-border and domestic club rugby competitions have been suspended since March as countries implemented travel bans and imposed strict health protocols as they battled the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) said this week a new domestic competition involving its five Super Rugby teams would start on June 13 after the government loosened some of the country’s lockdown restrictions and re-opened the economy.

Elite female players, however, have started to voice concerns about a lack of information from the governing body about whether their own domestic provincial competition or the women’s national 15s and sevens teams will play this year.

“Communication hasn’t filtered down a lot at the moment, and I think that’s where that frustration is,” Blacks Ferns sevens captain Sarah Hirini told Newstalk ZB on Saturday.

“We don’t know about our World Series tournament, we don’t know about the borders being opened up, we don’t even know when we can come back to see the rest of our teammates, even in level 2, so that’s probably the most challenging thing at the moment.”

World Rugby postponed both of the men’s and women’s global sevens circuits in March, while on Friday the organisation postponed all test matches scheduled for July.

The women’s world champion Black Ferns were due to play the United States on July 18 at Otago Regional Stadium in Dunedin ahead of the All Blacks-Scotland clash.

The postponements will place further financial strain on NZR, which has already projected a multi-million dollar loss for 2020 due to the pandemic and cancelled this year’s lower-tier provincial men’s competitions to cut costs.

The top-tier men’s and women’s provincial competitions are still set to be held.

Several provincial women’s players, however, have voiced concerns their competition could also be a victim of cost-cutting.

NZR Chief Executive Mark Robinson acknowledged the players’ frustration but said work was being done to ensure the women’s provincial competition and internationals would be played this year.

“There are significant pressures around rugby as a whole and New Zealand Rugby at the moment in terms of finding the funding to do these things,” Robinson told Newstalk ZB.

“It’s simply a case of trying to find the resources.”

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by William Mallard