Australia to host Rugby Championship, S.Africa participation in doubt

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia was picked over New Zealand to host the coronavirus-affected Rugby Championship on Friday, but the pandemic may prevent world champions South Africa from taking part.

The four-way international tournament, which also involves Argentina, was originally scheduled to begin in August.

But Covid-19 forced a rethink and the decision to play in only one nation, given border restrictions. Twelve matches will now take place between November 7 and December 12.

All rounds, bar one in Queensland, will be in the southeastern state of New South Wales, where Sydney is the capital.

But South Africa's participation is in doubt as the country continues to battle coronavirus, with all sporting competition there currently suspended.

"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," said SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos.

Argentina are also struggling with coach Mario Ledesma, other staff members and five players testing positive for coronavirus, according to a statement Thursday on the Argentina Rugby Union website.

"Those infected were isolated, they are asymptomatic and in good health," it said.

It follows six players testing positive last week, barely a fortnight after the Argentine government authorised the Pumas to resume training.

SANZAAR, the southern hemisphere governing body, previously said New Zealand was its preferred host due to its success in containing the virus, but after months of negotiations Australia pipped it to the post.

Marinos said Australia ultimately got the nod "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," he added.

- Trans-Tasman row -

Under Australian quarantine conditions, teams are expected to be able to train together in large groups while in mandatory 14-day isolation.

This was seen as important given neither South Africa nor Argentina have resumed competitive rugby since the pandemic brought sport to a halt earlier this year.

Australia and New Zealand are match-fit after playing domestic Super Rugby competitions.

To compensate for missing out on hosting the Championship, the All Blacks' two Bledisloe Cup Tests against the Wallabies, which were due to be played in Australia in October, will now be in New Zealand.

Fans are expected to be allowed in Australia. Under current New South Wales rules, venues can be up to a quarter of normal capacity or 10,000 spectators, whichever is less.

"We worked incredibly hard behind the scenes with a whole range of stakeholders, including SANZAAR and the New Zealand government, to ensure we were ready and able to host the Championship and we felt we were," said New Zealand Rugby chief Mark Robinson.

The decision is a shot in the arm for Rugby Australia, which has battled internal divisions this year, with the pandemic exacerbating financial strains on the organisation.

But its successful pitch could risk inflaming trans-Tasman tensions already strained over the future of Super Rugby.

That row centres on New Zealand's proposal for a club competition featuring only two to four of Australia's five teams because of a perceived lack of player depth.

Rugby Championship fixture details will be released over the coming weeks.

"We will now knuckle down to make these plans a reality," said Rugby Australia's interim chief Rob Clarke, who added that the Wallabies' postponed Tests against Ireland and Fiji that were scheduled for July will no longer go ahead in 2020.