WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand could approve the restart of professional sport as early as next week when authorities decide whether to ease coronavirus restrictions further, the sport ministry said on Thursday.
Sport and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson said professional sports would be able to resume domestically when the country lowers its COVID-19 alert level down a notch.
New Zealand is to decide on Monday whether the country will move from ‘Level 3’ to ‘Level 2’.
“Moving to Alert Level 2 continues to expand the opportunities for sport and recreation and reintroduces the opportunity for competitive sport – both at a local and professional level,” Robertson said in a statement.
“Obviously, the paramount concern is that a return to competitive sport is done safely.”
The announcement will give New Zealand hope of becoming the world’s first major rugby nation to resume playing the sport at an elite level.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) said it was “thrilled”, and had plans for 10 rounds of domestic games for the country’s five Super Rugby teams, who have been idle since the season was suspended in March.
“The five teams will play each other home and away over 10 weeks, with two matches every weekend. All matches will be played in closed stadiums,” NZR Chief Executive Mark Robinson said in a statement.
“Kiwi rugby fans love the local ... Super Rugby derbies, and they will now have 10 consecutive rounds to enjoy.”
The domestic matches have the backing of Super Rugby governing body SANZAAR, which includes partner unions from Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
NZR’s Robinson added that a decision on whether New Zealand could host scheduled tests in July against Wales and Scotland would be made within the next two weeks.
Compared to the United States and countries in Europe, New Zealand has been relatively successful in containing COVID-19, recording less than 1,500 infections and 21 deaths.
Infection rates plunged in recent weeks after authorities installed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.
New Zealand lowered its COVID-19 alert status to Level 3 from Level 4 last week, allowing more freedom of movement and some 400,000 people to return to work.
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherfrd