SA Rugby raised its hand to host the remainder of the rugby championship after the tournament’s immediate future was shaken when New Zealand unilaterally canceled games.
First published in Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The Springboks and Pumas rugby teams will not leave South Africa on August 22nd as planned. They will stay in Gqeberha until a final decision is made on the future of the rugby championship in 2021.
SA Rugby, one of the four partners of the Sanzaar Alliance (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby), agreed to host to complete the schedule after getting into turmoil on August 20th.
“Sanzaar announced that the recent Covid-19 outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand have massively disrupted the tournament schedule after tightening travel and quarantine regulations by various state and national governments,” SA Rugby said in a statement.
“New Zealand announced that the games against the Springboks in Auckland and Dunedin scheduled for the end of next month have been canceled. And then, without informing their Sanzaar partners, [they] Unilaterally issued a press release announcing that they would not fly their team to Perth … for a scheduled game against the Wallabies. “
SA Rugby has had a positive experience with the recent British & Irish Lions Tour and is well prepared to take on the championship. But games in SA would have to be played in empty stadiums under SA’s current Covid Level 3 restrictions.
“We have informed Sanzaar that we are ready and able to host the remainder of the competition in South Africa pending government approval,” said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.
“But we’re good at turning rugby testing on within the applicable Covid-19 restrictions now, and we have the venues and accommodations we need. We just need the green light. “
The annual rugby championship with the four leading international teams from the southern hemisphere should take place in Australia in the coming weeks. Perth was set to host the four teams after New Zealand closed its doors due to a Covid-19 lockdown.
But that plan hit a barrier harder than Springbok’s defense line when Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan announced the All Blacks would have to be in quarantine for 14 days prior to the scheduled August 28 meeting against the Wallabies in Perth.
But on August 18, the government of Western Australia issued new restrictions requiring all travelers to the state to be in quarantine for 14 days.
The All Blacks weren’t ready and play the game a week later on the weekend of September 3rd or play elsewhere in Australia like Brisbane, a city that doesn’t require a 14-day quarantine.
As a result of the cancellation of their planned duel against the Wallabies in Perth, the entire rugby championship got into turmoil in addition to an already fluid situation.
This move surprised Rugby Australia (RA) and has increased the bad blood between the two nations. According to reports in Australia, RA asked New Zealand rugby (the NZR) for an additional three hours to finalize details of moving the game to Brisbane, which it declined.
RA chief Andy Marinos accused the NZR of acting badly after learning about New Zealand’s decision to cancel through the media.
“It is incredibly disappointing to be informed about this decision through the media, even though we had a conversation with the CEO shortly before and there [being] no mention that this was the intent, “Marinos said in a statement.
“Despite this result, I am confident that we will find a solution for the entire rugby championship in what is still a very challenging working environment.”
Wallaby trainer Dave Rennie, a New Zealander, was less diplomatic: “I’m fucking mad,” Rennie said at a media briefing shortly after the All Blacks’ decision.
“It’s disappointing how it was communicated. Our boys all found out on social media. NZ Rugby didn’t even have the respect to consult RA on their decision so this is very disappointing, ”he said.
“I’m not sure if shocked is the right word because I’m not surprised. I just feel like there’s only one of us who [is] interested in doing what is best for the game, ”said Rennie.
“We have all made sacrifices to ensure that the games are played for the financial benefit of all and for the good of the game. If they play the welfare card, our boys from NSW have not been home for eight weeks, even without a clear end in sight, with the likelihood that the boys won’t come home until the end of November.
“The attitude of New Zealand not to keep its commitment is really disappointing …”
One-sided action by the NZR
SA Rugby and the Argentine Rugby Union remained on the sidelines until recently. But when Western Australia changed its guidelines, the rugby championship remained in unsafe waters.
The NZR, which has acted increasingly unilaterally since the pandemic last March, also unilaterally withdrew its teams from Super Rugby in July 2020.
Now it has jeopardized the future of an entire tournament that has already started because it is unwilling to cause any inconvenience to All Blacks players and management.
Despite SA Rugby’s offer, the All Blacks are unlikely to take it as the NZR refused to contest the 100th Test between world champions Springboks and the All Blacks in South Africa. It was planned for Dunedin.
It is unclear at this point whether the NZR could face sanctions if they refuse to complete the tournament, given a plausible plan that is accepted by the other three members.
In 2020, SA Rugby decided not to send the Springboks to Australia for the tournament, citing concerns about “player welfare” after the country was in an extended lockdown. The players were exposed to very little rugby at the time.
New Zealand’s players were involved in various Super Rugby iterations, national competitions and 11 tests in 2020 and 2021. You can hardly say that their players are not battle-hardened.
You could cite mental health issues due to pandemic restrictions, but if the tournament is in South Africa there is no 14-day quarantine.
Players and squads would have to stay in bio-bubbles, but that goes for all squads. The All Blacks are not unique in this regard.
Sanzaar said it is “currently working day and night with all stakeholders and the tournament-related commercial partners and rights holders to find a suitable solution for the remaining games.”
Other options to complete the championship
Options have been put on the table and three of them are being considered.
The first is to move the championship to Queensland. This state currently has milder restrictions than other states. The second is to move the remaining four game day weekends to the UK, Ireland and France. The third is that the Wallabies and All Blacks are coming to South Africa as the Boks and Pumas are already there.
The problem with continuing in Australia is that the situation is fluid. Given how quickly Western Australia has changed its policy, there is no guarantee that Queensland will not 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 have to go through another 14 days of quarantine because South Africa is still on the UK red list, but they would be doing that in Perth anyway.
Another factor is that the UK government is unlikely to be easily changing its restrictions anytime soon. A bonus is that fans might be allowed in stadiums, which increases the possibility of additional revenue.
South Africa is on the downward trend of its third wave of Covid-19 and could easily play the remaining games. There is almost no chance SA will return to Level 4 or higher in the next six weeks. No lengthy quarantine is required in South Africa either, which makes it easier for wallabies and all blacks to enter the country.
The downside is that those teams would have to spend 14 days in quarantine on their return home or, in the case of the All Blacks, head straight to the UK for an end-of-season tour.
These are not insurmountable problems, but they do take time, negotiation, and finance. Sanzaar is certainly not exactly rich in cash and the time is almost running out. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper, Daily Maverick 168, which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest specialist dealer, please click on here.