Grant Chapman: Rugby Championship small price to pay for COVID-19 recovery

OPINION: As if Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern didn't already have enough on her plate with COVID-19 and an increasingly vitriolic challenge for power at next month's general election, she now faces the very considerable discontent of New Zealand's rugby public.

After SANZAAR's totally expected change of heart to award this year's revamped Rugby Championship tournament to Australia, all fingers are pointing at a Government either unwilling or too slow to budge on coronavirus quarantine restrictions.

Get over it - it's only rugby and there are far bigger issues at play.

A couple of months ago, New Zealand seemed to have the event in the bag, with the country at COVID-19 Alert Level 1 and crowds cramming into Super Rugby Aotearoa games.

The whole world seemed in awe of our success in "going hard and going early" to combat the pandemic that had confounded other nations - and we were fooled into believing our own publicity.

Sports bosses became cocky over their ability to host major events that seemed beyond their rivals. ASB Classic tennis promoter Karl Budge boasted his tournament could be a "showstopper".

Auckland Tuatara talked of luring Major League Baseball stars seeking to escape the grip of the virus to rekindle their careers, while NZ Breakers bullishly offered to host an Australian NBL 'bubble' amid growing doubts over its upcoming season.  

At the same time, Australia was confronted with a second wave of infection that saw the state of Victoria locked down and other states threatening to close their borders, even as major sporting codes battled to keep their competitions alive.

If the four-nation international rugby competition was to take place, New Zealand seemed like the only option.

All that changed when our 100 days without community infection ended, and Ardern pitched Auckland back into Level 3 lockdown and the rest of the country into Level 2 last month.

The Blues v Crusaders Super Rugby finale was cancelled, and the North v South showpiece was postponed and relocated to an empty stadium in Wellington. 

That relapse we'd heard so much about was real and it was upon us.

But if our first lockdown was difficult, this latest setback has been even more so, with the gradual realisation that we may not truly shake this plague for some time yet.

Disgruntled citizens who previously questioned the coronavirus threat are now in open revolt over the Government's ongoing caution - and rugby seems poised to join the throng.

While NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson is officially merely "disappointed" at seeing the Rugby Championship slip through his fingers, his simmering frustration is pulpable. 

On this side of the Tasman, we're particularly touchy about losing major rugby events to Australia and this latest defeat is just the latest kick in the teeth from our occasional allies, who seem fiercely determined to plot their own course, since easing Kiwi CEO Raelene Castle out the door four months ago. 

But with the source of this latest community outbreak still unknown, now isn't the time for Ardern and her ministers to take liberties with border security just for the sake of our national game.

With that context, this may not be a bad competition to pass on anyway.

South Africa and Argentina rank among the nations worst hit by COVID-19, and the Pumas have already returned several positive tests - including head coach Mario Ledesma - as they prepare their campaign. 

Allowing infected Kiwis to return home to enforced quarantine is necessary, but scary enough, without needlessly welcoming complete strangers from the world's coronavirus hot spots to our shores for sport. 

We'll need to find ways to live with coronavirus moving forward, but that has to happen on our own terms, not those of an international sporting body.

Let the Aussies take that gamble - our turn will come again soon enough.

Grant Chapman is Newshub online sports editor.