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John Key meets the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2015. Photo: Getty Images
John Key meets the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 16, 2020

Yes, public health is important. But surely not as important as rugby

John Key meets the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2015. Photo: Getty Images
John Key meets the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

If the government thought warding off a risk of economic catastrophe and unnecessary death was more important than securing the right to host the Rugby Championship, it has another thing coming, writes Hayden Donnell.

Like many Kiwis, my biggest fear when Labour won the election in 2017 was that Jacinda Ardern would curse the All Blacks. Some people laughed, saying “John Key wasn’t actually the captain of the All Blacks”, and “on-field results are more likely dictated by the rugby players who make up the All Blacks squad”.

Well, who’s laughing now? We might be hosting a pair of Bledisloe tests either side of the election, but that is little comfort when you consider the multi-national carnival of sport it might have been. Last week it was announced that New Zealand had lost out on the right to host the upcoming Rugby Championship. Australia reportedly “pinched” the competition’s hosting rights because our government refused to ease quarantine requirements which would have forced touring squads into 25-person training bubbles.

As Gregor Paul noted for the Herald, Australia’s victory was down to its government’s ability to “make mature, holistic risk assessments that recognise that a nation’s health can’t be divorced from its economy or measured purely by the spread of one illness”. In other words, the best governments weigh up risks and rewards, and make decisions in the best interests of the country. They don’t say no to rugby just because it might mean a bit more Covid-19. They compromise.

The risks in this situation were obvious. South Africa has recorded 24,737 new cases of Covid-19 in the last fortnight. Argentina has recorded 145,242 infections in the same time frame. Six members of the Pumas squad, including their coach, have already caught the virus. If an infected person from one of those countries’ squads doesn’t behave well in quarantine, they could set off a chain of transmission that kills several older or more vulnerable people and sends New Zealand hurtling toward another economically catastrophic lockdown.

The reward, though, is rugby.

Any right-thinking Kiwi knows there’s really no competition. What’s an overwhelmed Intensive Care Unit or two compared to the sight of a Puma prop smashing into Sam Whitelock in the middle of Forsyth Barr Stadium? A dose of Covid-19 may be the ultimate hospital pass, but it’s one most Kiwis would willingly catch with both hands if it means saving our national game. As the end came, they would undoubtedly croak a last “go the All Blacks” before softly slipping into the blackest jersey of them all, death.

Thanks to this government, Australia’s rugby fans are now being given that opportunity.

This is a precedent-setting policy failure. The last time we stopped All Blacks matches going ahead, it was in protest at our opponents’ noxious racism. Now we’re putting off matches over a globe-spanning plague. What’s next? Cancelling rugby to stop climate change? To cure cancer?

This has to stop. 

Yes, other industries have also sacrificed for the good of the country’s Covid-19 response. The $5.1 billion international student industry has also vanished due to the government’s refusal to relax its quarantine rules. But how important is learning, really? I’m not alone when I say I would cancel the educations of a thousand people to watch one lineout maul down the sideline of the Cake Tin, or destroy a dozen lecture theatres to witness an Aaron Smith box kick from inside his own 22.

People, too, have given up a lot. They’ve said goodbye to their dying loved ones via Zoom. Delayed their weddings. Some have worn a mask without freaking out and yelling about it in Aotea Square.

Even the foundational institutions of our society have had to make adjustments to accommodate the novel coronavirus. The election has been moved back to allow for as much virus-free campaigning as possible. But some things are more important than democracy. Things like rugby.

RNZ’s 7.30am headline roundup yesterday listed off several stories on rugby, before transitioning to the news that there may be alien life on Venus. Some people may see that as skewed news values. It’s not. Potential new life in our solar system is simply not as important as what’s happening with the All Blacks.

The government needs to recognise that reality. As Gregor Paul writes, staying rigid on its quarantine regulations looks like a cynical bid to “to stay on track to temporarily eliminate Covid ahead of the general election”. 

Temporarily eliminating Covid-19 may mean a period of relatively safe, unhindered economic activity, along with fewer deaths and long-term illnesses for New Zealanders. But what’s the point of that if there’s no rugby? People can be replaced. Economies can be rebuilt. You can at least superimpose a cool background on a Zoom funeral. One thing you can’t replace is Jack Goodhue cutting through the Springbok defence for a gain of 20 metres near the halfway line of Eden Park. At the moment it seems the government doesn’t understand how important watching 33 consecutive scrum resets is to Kiwis, to the New Zealand Rugby Union, and most importantly, to me. Some people in this situation simply need to get their priorities straight.

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