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Australia to host Rugby Championship but Boks may be on the sidelines

Australia to host Rugby Championship but Boks may be on the sidelines
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi will lead his squad in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions. (Photo: EPA-EFE/MARK R. CRISTINO)

The Rugby Championship will go ahead in November and December 2020 in Australia, but it looks increasingly unlikely the Springboks will be a part of it.

The 2020 Rugby Championship, instead of being played in New Zealand, will now be held in Australia between 7 November and 12 December 2020 South African, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) confirmed on Friday. 

Sanzaar made the decision to move their truncated flagship tournament across the Tasman Sea because of Australia’s more relaxed Covid-19 policies. 

New Zealand had been scheduled to host the tournament in a “bio-bubble” environment, but its stringent quarantine measures made it impractical. Australia has fewer restrictions for what will be a logistically challenging undertaking anyway. 

While Sanzaar patted itself on the back for finalising the Rugby Championship dates and venue, actually staging the tournament is still going to be a challenge. Not least because it is increasingly unlikely the world champion Springboks will play due to continued lockdown restrictions in South Africa while the bulk of Argentina’s squad are playing in Europe. Both those situations pose problems. 

“We are delighted that Sanzaar can at last confirm the participants and host country for the Rugby Championship and put an end to continued speculation about the tournaments’ format and location,” Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos said in a statement.

“Traditionally, the Rugby Championship is played as an international, cross-border series of home and away matches between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but due to the pandemic, this is obviously not possible this year. 

“We have, therefore, worked very hard as a group to ensure that it takes place this year, albeit in one country, and Sanzaar was meticulous in assessing the two options for hosting presented to it by New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia. 

“Sanzaar ultimately determined that based on government required quarantine protocols [for entry and training prior to the tournament] and commercial underwriting, the Rugby Australia submission was the most desirable and workable in terms of tournament logistics for the essential pre-tournament preparation period and the six-week tournament itself.” 

But South Africa and Argentina are so far behind New Zealand and Australia in their preparations that playing against the All Blacks and Wallabies could pose serious injury risks for many players.

SA Rugby could not confirm participation while a ban on international sporting activity remained in place in South Africa. The mother body also said that there were other high performance and player wellness issues to consider. 

CEO Jurie Roux pointed out that New Zealand resumed match play three months ago while Australia had been in action for 10 weeks. By contrast, South African players only resumed contact training two weeks ago. 

“We are pleased that the venue has now been confirmed and would like to commend Sanzaar and Rugby Australia for their work behind the scenes to make it possible,” said Roux. 

“We are very eager to see the Springboks return to play, but there are still some hurdles to clear and we will be addressing those in the coming weeks.” 

The major reason SA Rugby is keen for the Boks to defend their rugby championship title is the R300-million broadcast rights fee windfall it would bring to the beleaguered rugby industry. Earlier in 2020, SA Rugby announced a series of measures to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the industry when all competitions were suspended. 

In a worst case scenario, SA Rugby budgeted for R1.2-billion in cutbacks in 2020, but it was optimistic that a domestic Currie Cup and the Rugby Championship could take place, which would ease the pain. 

But despite numerous submissions to the sports ministry and Minister Nathi Mthethwa, the department has not given rugby the green light to resume competition despite allowing football to complete its season over the past month. 

It’s a frustrating and devastating time for rugby, and while players are back in contact training as per Level 2 Covid-19 lockdown regulations, the sport requires Mthethwa to formally announce that it can resume competitions. 

There is little sense to Mthethwa’s continued delay in giving the go ahead. SA Rugby has met all Covid-19 protocols and when the ministry allowed rugby teams to return to training in early August, there was optimism that the local Currie Cup would start in early September. 

Yet five weeks on, Mthethwa has remained silent and rugby sinks deeper into financial ruin. SA Rugby has now planned for an early October 2020 restart of competitions, but the window for that to be feasible is also closing rapidly.

“The Springboks’ participation will be dependent on the relaxation of that suspension as well as overcoming a number of other logistical challenges, including the opening of international air borders,” Marinos said. 

“South Africa is only expected to return to competitive play next month [October], leaving a relatively short time to prepare. Sanzaar is now working through the refinement of the detailed planning with Rugby Australia and we hope to announce match venues, match dates and kick-off times in the very near future. 

“We are cognisant of the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic environment continues to change and throw up obstacles, but we are confident that our plans are robust and we will naturally build in contingency measures to suit any further changes.” DM

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