Every level of every code in New Zealand has been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic over the past three months – a unique and formidable challenge the likes of which sport in this country has never seen. But the end of grassroots rugby league’s hiatus is in sight.

While the Canterbury Rugby League club competitions would usually be at the halfway mark at this time of the year, there is still time to schedule a meaningful season for our senior and junior players after play resumes next week. New Zealand’s move to Level 1 also means there will be no restrictions on volunteers and supporters attending matches.

The Massetti Cup Men’s Premiership and Canterbury Cup Premier Reserves competitions will get underway with Round 1 on Saturday 20 June.

A 10-round regular season has been scheduled for the Massetti Cup. The eight teams have been split in East (Linwood, Eastern, Celebration and Northern) and West (Hornby, Riccarton, Halswell and Papanui) conferences, playing each team in their conference in the first three rounds before a bye week for the East v West representative fixture at Ngā Puna Wai on 11 July. All clubs will play each other once during the remaining seven rounds.

Due to the revised numbers of team entries post-lockdown there are not enough teams entered to warrant a sustainable Division One grade in 2020. The 11-round Canterbury Cup grade will consist of nine teams, including three 2019 Division One teams: Woolston Rams, Ashburton Barbarians and Burnham Chevaliers.

A top-four, two-week finals series will follow the regular season for both grades with CRL Grand Final Day set down for September 13 at Ngā Puna Wai.

The 10-round Presidents grade also commences on 20 June, with a 10-a-side competition bringing their season to a close on 29 August.

The fallout from the pandemic has impacted the CRL Women’s grade the hardest with only two teams entered. CRL will be discussing options with the clubs who entered a women’s team to consider alternative formats of rugby league in 2020.

The 16s and 18s competitions kick off at Ngā Puna Wai on Monday 22 June, followed by the 14s at Ngā Puna Wai on Wednesday 24 June and the first day of Mini and Mods rugby league (Nursery, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 Years) – at club grounds rather than the traditional Canterbury Park hub – on Saturday 27 June. Finals day for the non-competitive grades will be 5 September for non-competitive Grades. The 11 and 12-year-old grades will commence semi-finals 5 September followed by Grand finals on 12/13September at Ngā Puna Wai.

“It’s certainly been a trying time for everyone facing the unknowns of what the COVID-19 could bring to people’s personal lives – let alone the sporting community – which understandably takes a backseat in priorities of our members’ daily lives,” Canterbury Rugby League CEO Duane Fyfe says.

“At the start of lockdown there was every possibility that winter codes would not take the field this year at all, with some early decisions being made to restrict crowd numbers and a resultant financial loss should we return to play with tight government restrictions. Hence why Mini/Mods will be played at club grounds and not Canterbury Park for this season.

“NZRL’s decision to cancel this year’s national competitions and tournaments early on was also based on this premise. There are plans to replace the representative youth tournaments with development camps and one-day tournaments.

“NZRL has been working hard with the other winter codes and taking the lead on the phased return to play.”

Canterbury Rugby League has undertaken several cost-saving measures to counteract the severe hit to funding avenues the game has endured as a result of COVID-19, notably Class 4 funding (gaming machine funding) being suspended until September and sponsors withdrawing support in these challenging economic times.

After valued team members Club Capability Manager George Lajpold and Competitions & Referees Manager Olivia Sherwood moved on earlier this year, CRL made the decision not to recruit to fill either position for the time being. Meanwhile, CRL has relinquished its lease at the Wilding Park offices and remaining staff members (60 percent of usual staffing capacity) are working from home for the foreseeable future.

The NZRL’s cancellation of all national competitions for the 2020 season means the Canterbury Bulls will not have any representative fixtures this year. Andrew Auimatagi, the Bulls’ coach since 2016, says that underlines the importance of the East v West match on 11 July.

“It’s another opportunity for the league community to come together, and there are those allegiances to the two sides of town. That will boost spirits,” Auimatagi says.

“But also having the chance for aspiring players to play in a rep fixture is really important, to keep them aiming high and give us representative coaches a chance to have a look at them, keep them in the system and keep them tracking towards the Bulls next year hopefully.

“It gives the players a chance to showcase what they’ve got, that next tier of player. And playing the games at Ngā Puna Wai just makes it a bit more real and serious – it adds to the atmosphere on the day.

“It’s also about the way it advertises our game and with a bit of exposure I think we can make East versus West even better.”

After a bumper 2019 season that included matches against the Warriors’ reserve grade team, NSW Country and Samoa on top of reaching the NZRL National Premiership final for the first time since 2015, Auimatagi admits that the Bulls not taking the field together this year is a blow – but he remains circumspect and is looking ahead to 2021.

“I’m hoping boys are still keen to represent Canterbury on the national stage,” he says.

“There’s always up-and-coming talent that want to push for professional careers, so it’s a matter of having the right balance of those guys and some experienced players to steer them on the right path. Hopefully it will back to normal next year with an extra fixture here or there.”

After being arguably the busiest coach in New Zealand in recent seasons, Auimatagi has stepped down from the Linwood Keas head coach role following four straight grand final triumphs with the club. But like everyone in rugby league after a sports-starved few months, he can’t for the belated season start.

“There’s a lot of people that are keen, a few that are unsure just due to extra work commitments they’ve had to take on. It’s a different time right across the world and those Saturdays might be taken up with extra shifts, but hopefully we can keep our numbers in the game and get back to playing footy and enjoying ourselves.”

Canterbury Rugby League would like to take the opportunity to thank its members, clubs, players, coaches, administrators, volunteers and supporters for their patience, perseverance and cooperation in difficult circumstances over the past few months as our game’s return to the field draws near.

Despite the delay, we’re looking forward to a memorable season together with our rugby league community.

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