We speak to Women's Rugby World Cup Tournament Director Michelle Hooper about the challenges of delivering a tournament in a global pandemic.
Hooper, a highly experienced tournament organiser and administrator has held a variety of roles in international sport including roles at previous Rugby World Cups, with the New Zealand Olympic Committee and with the Americas Cup.
We spoke to her on the day the match schedule for the competition was announced and she expressed her confidence that the event will happen, even if it will look and feel different.
Teams and officials, with the exception of New Zealand, are likely to have to isolate in a group for 14 days, though they will be able to train, and fans are very unlikely to be able to travel.
Here she answers our questions
How are you feeling about the progress of preparation and can New Zealand really manage to pull this off this year?
I have been involved in major events for 20 years and there are always some disasters but normally that is during the course of the delivery. I started this job in February 2020 and Covid hit that month so it has been since the beginning we have been dealing with how to manage a major international event in a global pandemic.
New Zealand has done an outstanding job in having a Covid free status and that has given us the platform to deliver a big event and up to now we have proven we can and do host and deliver these events.
We are hosting the Prada Cup at the moment which leads to the Americas Cup and we have had the international teams come in for that event and come through the managed isolation and quarantine process. We have had Bledisloe Cup matches, we have had netball tournaments and we have had cricket – world class events. It is all doable – we just need to get the teams into the country and we can deliver the 2021 World Cup. It is about being determined and we have good relationships with the government and World Rugby and we are keeping the teams very well informed and communicating with them about what the processes to get into the country will be. As long as we keep that great dialogue up there is nothing we cannot overcome.
What will be different for the teams?
New Zealand’s borders are closed now so no people other than New Zealanders can come in but we have major event status for the Rugby World Cup 2021 which means we can apply for an exceptions process to get the people critical to the tournament into the country which includes teams and officials. People will then need to go through the phased process, including the 14 days managed isolation process. For people outside of New Zealand that means quarantining in hotels at the border but we need a bespoke process around being able to let teams train to some degree, like other international sports have done here over the last year.
Is it too soon to say if that exception will extend to fans travelling?
That exception only extends to people who are critical to tournament delivery. At the moment it would not include fans. We are optimistic that we might be able to get some travel bubbles open but even if we didn’t it wouldn’t mean that we can’t have the tournament. These are unprecedented times and we see the World Cup as a great beacon of hope for people. It brings joy and it inspires hope that things can get back to normal. It is going to be done in different circumstances, no doubt about that but we are still committed to delivering it. One thing I like to say is that it has been a really challenging time and it is only right to shine a spotlight on the awesomeness of women and all they do. The Rugby World Cup will really shine a light on women’s sport and there is no better time to do that.
How would you feel about it being mainly home fans and is the appetite there from the New Zealand public to really get behind this to break records?
It would be disappointing that we wouldn’t get the chance to share the welcome of New Zealand with fans and for them to experience the World Cup here. The fact that we can share that with the athletes though and the feeling they get when they come here we can still get that through. I have total confidence in the New Zealand public to get behind the tournament. Kiwis love a challenge and they love rugby so the chance to come out and celebrate our women’s players and the visitors.
Is the message to the world – this is happening and there will be a World Cup this year?
Yes. We are tracking to deliver the World Cup in the window from September 2021 to October 2021 and that is our key message to the fans. To the New Zealand audience – I would ask them to remember that we had greater crowds at Super Rugby games last year than we have ever had and that opportunity to see live sport and get behind the teams – with the patriotism that is here in New Zealand at the moment, we can really make this special.
There are still teams not qualified – is that a concern?
World Rugby have plans and these are unprecedented happen. I have confidence in them to do what they need to do to get us the 12 teams and to deliver this World Cup.
Is the Prime Minister a genuine fan of women’s rugby?
Yes she is a huge fan of rugby and a huge supporter of the tournament. She is a huge hero to us in general!