Trans-Tasman rugby relations have seemingly sunk even further into hostility with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) accusing Rugby Australia (RA) of back-tracking on a deal to condense the Rugby Championship to five weeks.
SANZAAR was in damage control on Thursday morning after the tournament organisers released their six-week draw for the tournament, of which four rounds will be played in Sydney and one each in Brisbane and Newcastle, only for NZR to publicly denounce the fixture plan and claim it hadn’t agreed to the draw.
NZR’s gripe is with the Dec. 12 date for the competition’s closing Tests, which will prohibit All Blacks players from being with their families over Christmas unless a special exemption is made by the New Zealand Government in regards to its quarantine protocols.
NZR boss Mark Robinson said that RA had agreed in principle to stage the tournament across five weeks from Nov. 7, which would have ensured the All Blacks cleared quarantine in New Zealand in time for Christmas.
“We had a scenario that we’ve been focused on of New Zealand and Australia being able to play the tournament across five weeks, and it would have been the same had it been played in New Zealand,” Robinson said.
“That was always the principle we were working on.
“We were committed to the Australians being back at home with their families before Christmas.
“Clearly in the last few days there’s been some developments that mean the commitment to that wasn’t as strong, and we’ll keep working through that with SANZAAR and Rugby Australia.
“I think there are some commercial considerations at play.”
NZR remains committed, at this point, to ensuring the tournament goes ahead, and that final group of fixtures is played, but relations between it and RA, which were already icy after New Zealand’s initial go-it-alone approach to Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2021, have seemingly slumped into further hostility.
ESPN has contacted RA for a response to Robinson’s claims.
Meanwhile, a source with knowledge of the situation said that NZR had actually voted against RA’s wish for the tournament to be played within five weeks when it had originally been earmarked for New Zealand.
The source told ESPN that an initial SANZAAR vote on Australia’s request that the Rugby Championship be played within five weeks was dismissed 3-1, before the tournament was then switched to Australia and another vote ensued; it was then dismissed 2-2 on the account of it requiring majority approval.
South Africa Rugby and the Argentina Rugby Union voted against the five-week plan on both occasions, leaving SANZAAR with little option but to release the Rugby Championship draw under its original six-week window.
NZR had been SANZAAR’s preferred Rugby Championship “hub” since May, with the country going more than 100 days without community transmission of the coronavirus until a small resurgence in cases in early August.
That prompted the New Zealand Government to reintroduce Level 2 and Level 3 restrictions, which forced the cancellation of the Super Rugby Aotearoa finale between the Blues and Crusaders in Auckland, and it has since severely limited the number of people permitted to attend sporting events up and down the country.
The New Zealand Government’s refusal to tweak its quarantine restrictions for the Springboks and Pumas left SANZAAR with little choice but to award the tournament to Australia due to the NSW Government’s less strict quarantine restrictions, and the use of team bubbles that have been so successful for both Super Rugby AU and the NRL.
The New Zealand Government did eventually agree to grant the Wallabies less stringent quarantine requirements so they would be able to prepare properly for Bledisloe Cup fixtures on Oct. 11 and 18, which were switched to New Zealand from Australia once the Rugby Championship was moved across the Tasman.
There are those in New Zealand who believe Robinson may be attempting to deflect the attention away from NZR’s loss of the Rugby Championship, despite the key issue revolving around the government’s unwillingness to bend its quarantine protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
NZR also drew widespread condemnation, particularly from RA, when it asked for “expressions of interest” from parties for involvement in an expanded Super Rugby Aotearoa competition for 2021, seemingly breaking away from the SANZAAR alliance without discussing the move with its partners first.
The entire situation is another huge dagger in the future of the SANZAAR alliance, despite chief executive Andy Marinos telling reporters on Thursday that he was confident the Rugby Championship would proceed in Australia as planned.