WELLINGTON: New Zealand will become the first country to resume professional rugby union games next weekend as governments around the world move to ease lockdown measures to fight the novel coronavirus.
All eyes will be on the 10-week Super Rugby Aotearoa competition organised by New Zealand Rugby (NZR) as others seek to resume sporting activities after these were halted due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The tournament, which involves New Zealand's five teams, starts next Saturday in Dunedin and is aimed at filling the gap left by the postponement of the international competition Super Rugby - which is unlikely to restart this season.
Super Rugby Aotearoa is likely to take place initially without fans present, like the National Rugby League and other sports that have resumed in Australia.
But this could change if New Zealand, which has been among the most successful countries in containing the virus, announces further easing of restrictions at a government meeting on Monday.
A public health expert told Reuters that any reopening was likely to be cautious and gradual.
"I would imagine they would start in a relatively closed stadium situation and then maybe have a small number to check if there are any issues," said Professor Brian Cox, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in a recent interview.
"We have to do it in a very slow, measured way to make sure that we're not making an error that results in a major outbreak again."
New Zealand has had no new infections in the last 16 days and has just one active case.
The competition will provide some much needed cash flow for NZR, who are forecasting a 70 per cent decline in revenue this year.
The tournament is also likely to be a proving ground for the resumption of test matches towards the end of the year, even if they are confined to clashes between the southern hemisphere nations.
Rugby Australia have suggested hosting a "hub" to allow the Wallabies, Springboks, All Blacks and Pumas to play a fixture-congested Rugby Championship.