Could netball be the last sport standing?
Playing their part in the bid to slow the spread of Covid-19, will New Zealand netball completely halt their elite league, or play to empty stands?
As we awkwardly elbow-bumped and foot-tapped our greetings in Papakura’s Pulman Arena on Sunday evening, there was an overwhelming feeling we were privileged to be there.
There was an awareness in the crowd that the clash between the two northern netball sides, the Mystics and the Stars, to open their ANZ Premiership season, could be the last sporting event we would get to witness live for some time.
That intuition turned out to be correct.
Other major codes had already pulled the pin or postponed their seasons in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Super Rugby was suspended, the Black Caps abandoned their ODI series in Australia, the Black Sticks canned their travel plans to Europe, while the Warriors debated whether to live on the Gold Coast or pull out of the NRL season all together.
In the netball world, England had postponed its Superleague, and Australia’s national age group netball championships were called off.
Netball New Zealand had decided to carry on with the opening round of their elite domestic league, with games in Blenheim, Auckland and Dunedin - instructing their teams to strictly adhere to the Ministry of Health guidelines for staging mass gatherings and events.
Unwell spectators were asked to stay away; players needed a clean bill of health to board a plane or take the court.
And the crowd, too, had their role to play, as we saw at Papakura on Sunday, where they accepted instructions that the players were strictly out of bounds. No one approached a player for an autograph or a selfie; friends and family kept their distance from the court after the match.
But by Monday afternoon, their season plans took another turn, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement that any gatherings or events with a crowd of over 500 must be cancelled. There was no end date to that constraint.
"I know that this decision is hugely disappointing. I know it will have an impact on a large number of communities … but we are making this decision in the best interests of New Zealanders,” she said.
Netball NZ’s reaction had to be swift. Exactly three hours after the announcement, the starting whistle of the game between the Steel and the Magic in Dunedin was set to blow.
They decided to play the game, but behind closed doors.
Tickets were refunded. The Steel's co-captain Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit said her team were disappointed, but they respected the decision "in a really challenging time".
Whereas in Auckland, hundreds of thunder-sticks drowned out all other sounds, in Dunedin on Monday night, every shoe squeak, umpire’s whistle and defender’s scream echoed through the empty Edgar Centre. And although the environment felt like a training match, there was no intensity lost - the Magic holding off a fightback from the home side to beat the Steel for the first time in the league's history, 54-48.
As for the rest of the ANZ Premiership season, set to run through to mid-July, that still hangs in the air, like Elisapeta Toeava mid-flight.
Netball NZ will meet Tuesday morning to discuss what comes next – whether they can continue to play three matches a week in closed stadiums, and whether that would pose a risk to the health of the players, team staff and those running the venues.
The Papakura crowd on Sunday, for the most part, abided by the Prime Minister’s reminder there should be no handshakes, no hongi and no hugs.
The players themselves had been advised not to hug and kiss their opponents after the final whistle. But maybe that was too much to ask, when you consider they’d been in extremely close contact for 60 minutes (even if it’s a non-contact sport). The pure nature of the sport tosses the practice of social distancing out the window.
Yes, it was a habit too hard to break, it seemed, as they embraced their rivals after another torrid battle of the bridge (incidentally, won by the Mystics).
It was somewhat bittersweet to watch the beautiful Samoan song, Le ‘Aute, performed by the Stars team for Mystics defender Sulu Fitzpatrick celebrating her 100th match, while the stands behind her had almost emptied (watch the video below).
The coronavirus procedures adopted were in no way as extreme as the Manly v Melbourne NRL game being played across the ditch at the same time - where the ball kids wore gloves and the ball was cleaned in a bucket of bleach every time it flew into the crowd.
Seasoned Stars manager Dee Leggat said after their game that little had changed for the players. “It’s all common sense. And we trust the girls to have common sense,” she says.
“We haven’t really changed anything we normally do – just hand sanitiser up the wazoo, really. We always use [sanitiser] anyway, but supplies are running low.
“It’s been more about looking forward and having a plan. We don’t want to scaremonger.
“Today after the captain’s run we had a quick five-minute explanation of ‘This is the reason we can’t go into the crowd, this is the reason you can’t spend time with your families after the game’.
“But it was really heart-breaking to tell Gracie [captain Grace Kara] she couldn’t have little Agape [her baby son] on the court.”
In other sports, Swimming New Zealand have decided to hold their national championships at the end of this month behind closed doors. Three young Kiwi swimmers based overseas rushed back to beat yesterday’s deadline for 14-day self-isolation, but there will be an additional Olympic trial meet in June for athletes who couldn’t make it home in time.
The Phoenix will play out the rest of their season in Australia with the controversial decision to continue the A-League. They will first spend 14 days in self-isolation before they can play – with no spectators. The W-League grand final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC this weekend will go ahead, but behind closed doors.
New Zealand Cricket has now cancelled the final two rounds of its first-class men’s competition, the Plunket Shield. The Auckland Hearts reclaimed the women’s national ODI championship title, the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, on the weekend.
And rowing's Maadi Cup, the largest school sports event in the Southern Hemisphere with more than 2000 rowers, has now been suspended, along with all events on School Sport NZ's national calendar.