SA Rugby has put up its hand to host the remainder of the Rugby Championship after the tournament’s immediate future was put in the balance when New Zealand unilaterally cancelled matches.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The Springboks and Pumas rugby squads won’t be leaving South Africa on 22 August as planned. They will remain in Gqeberha until a final decision on the future of the 2021 Rugby Championship is taken.
SA Rugby, one of the four partners in the Sanzaar alliance (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby), said it was willing to be the host to complete the schedule after it was thrown into turmoil on 20 August.
“Sanzaar announced that the latest outbreaks of Covid-19 in Australia and New Zealand had caused massive disruption to the match schedule for the tournament following the tightening of regulations placed on travel and quarantine by various state and national governments,” an SA Rugby statement read.
“New Zealand announced that the planned matches against the Springboks in Auckland and Dunedin at the end of next month had been cancelled. And then, without informing their Sanzaar partners, [they] unilaterally issued a media release announcing they would not fly their team to Perth … for a planned match against the Wallabies.”
SA Rugby has good experience after hosting the recent British & Irish Lions tour and is well prepared to step in for the championship. But matches in SA would have to be played in empty stadiums under SA’s current Covid Level 3 restrictions.
“We have advised Sanzaar that we are ready and able to host the remainder of the competition in South Africa, pending our government’s approval,” said SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.
“But we are now well versed in turning on rugby Tests within the prevailing Covid-19 restrictions and have the venues and accommodation necessary. We just need the go-ahead.”
The annual Rugby Championship, featuring the southern hemisphere’s four leading international teams, was supposed to play out in Australia over the coming weeks. Perth was set to be the venue to host the four teams after New Zealand shut its doors owing to a Covid-19 lockdown.
But that plan hit a barrier harder than the Springbok defensive line when Western Australian premier Mark McGowan announced that the All Blacks would have to spend 14 days in quarantine before the scheduled 28 August meeting against the Wallabies in Perth.
But on 18 August, the Western Australia government issued new restrictions demanding that all travellers to the state spend 14 days in quarantine.
The All Blacks were not prepared to do this, and play the match a week later on the weekend of 3 September or play elsewhere in Australia such as in Brisbane, a city that doesn’t require 14-day quarantines.
As a result of the cancellation of their scheduled clash against the Wallabies in Perth, the entire Rugby Championship was thrown into turmoil on top of an already fluid situation.
That move caught Rugby Australia (RA) by surprise and has raised the bad blood between the two nations. According to reports in Australia, RA asked New Zealand Rugby (the NZR) for three more hours to finalise details of moving the match to Brisbane, which it refused.
RA chief executive Andy Marinos accused the NZR of acting in bad faith after he learnt the news of New Zealand’s decision to cancel via the media.
“It’s incredibly disappointing to be informed of this decision via the media, despite having a conversation with the CEO moments before and there [being] no mention that this was the intention,” Marinos said in a statement.
“Despite this outcome, I am confident we will find a solution for the whole Rugby Championship in what continues to be a very challenging environment in which to work.”
Wallaby coach Dave Rennie, who is a New Zealander, was less diplomatic: “I’m bloody angry” were Rennie’s first words at a media briefing soon after the All Blacks’ decision was made.
“It’s disappointing how it’s been communicated. Our boys all found out through social media. NZ Rugby didn’t even have the respect to consult RA about their decision, so that’s hugely disappointing,” he said.
“I’m not sure that shocked is the right word, because I’m not surprised. I just feel there’s only one of us who [is] interested in doing what’s best for the game,” Rennie said.
“We’ve all made sacrifices to ensure that the games are played for the financial benefit of everyone and the good of the game. If they’re playing the welfare card, well our NSW guys haven’t been home for eight weeks already with no clear end in sight either, with the likelihood that guys won’t get home until late November.
“NZ’s attitude to not honouring their commitment is really disappointing…”
Unilateral action by NZR
SA Rugby and the Argentinean Rugby Union had until recently remained on the sidelines. But when Western Australia changed its guidelines, the Rugby Championship was left listing in uncertain waters.
The NZR, which has increasingly acted unilaterally since the pandemic started disrupting global sporting calendars last March, also unilaterally withdrew its teams from Super Rugby in July 2020.
Now it has placed the future of an entire tournament, which has already started, in jeopardy because it is unwilling to inconvenience All Blacks players and management.
Despite SA Rugby’s offer it is unlikely that the All Blacks will accept it because the NZR does not want to play the 100th Test between the world champion Springboks and the All Blacks in South Africa. It was scheduled for Dunedin.
It is unclear at this stage whether the NZR could face sanctions if it refuses to complete the tournament if there is a plausible plan in place accepted by the other three members.
In 2020, SA Rugby decided not to send the Springboks to the tournament in Australia, citing “player welfare” concerns after the country had been in a lengthy lockdown. Players had been exposed to very little rugby at the time.
New Zealand’s players have been involved in various Super Rugby iterations, domestic competitions and 11 Tests in 2020 and 2021. They can hardly claim their players are not battle-hardened.
They could cite mental health issues because of pandemic restrictions, but if the tournament is in SA, there is no 14-day quarantine requirement.
Players and squads would need to remain in bio-bubbles, but it is the same for all of the squads. The All Blacks are not unique in that sense.
Sanzaar said it was “currently working night and day with all stakeholders, and the tournament’s associated commercial partners and rights-holding broadcasters, to find a suitable solution for the remaining matches”.
Other options to complete championship
Options have been put on the table and there are three under consideration.
The first is to relocate the championship to Queensland. That state currently has milder restrictions than other states. The second is to move the remaining four match-day weekends to the UK, Ireland and France. The third is for the Wallabies and All Blacks to come to South Africa, since the Boks and Pumas are already in situ.
The problem with going ahead in Australia is that the situation is fluid. Considering how quickly Western Australia changed its policy, there is no guarantee Queensland won’t follow suit at the slightest hint of a spike in Covid infections.
That makes the UK option more attractive. The Boks and Pumas squads would still have to go through 14 days of quarantine because South Africa remains on the UK red list, but they were going to do that in Perth anyway.
Another factor is that the UK government is unlikely to change its restrictions easily in the foreseeable future. A bonus is that fans could be allowed in stadiums, raising the possibility of additional income.
South Africa is on the downward trajectory of its third Covid-19 wave and could comfortably stage the remaining matches. There is almost zero chance of SA returning to Level 4 or above in the coming six weeks. There is also no lengthy quarantine required in South Africa, making it easier for the Wallabies and All Blacks to enter.
The downside is that those teams would need to spend 14 days in quarantine when returning home, or in the All Blacks’ case, continuing straight on to the UK for an end-of-season tour.
These are not insurmountable problems, but they require time, negotiation and finances. Sanzaar is certainly not flush with spare cash and it is almost out of time. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.