Rugby Championship: Trans-Tasman relations sink further into hostility

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, an accusation RA flatly rejects.

SANZAAR was in damage control on Thursday morning after the competition stewards released its 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 deteriorated further.

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.

RA interim chief Rob Clarke said there was never an agreement to hold the tournament's final slate of games on Dec. 5, insisting it had twice voted in favour of reducing the tournament to a five-week timeframe.

"For absolute clarity - on two formal occasions - Rugby Australia was supportive of altering the draw so that the Rugby Championship could be played over five weeks," Clarke said via a media release later Thursday. "On both occasions, that proposal was rejected which means there was never an agreement to finish the tournament on Saturday 5 December 2020.

"That being said, no one wants players and team management to be away from their families and in quarantine over Christmas. Rugby Australia will do everything in its power to help assist New Zealand Rugby and the team in finding a reasonable resolution, and in urging them to exhaust every possible alternative. There are still more than two months to go before December 12 so we have plenty of time to find a solution.

"We will continue to work with New Zealand Rugby and support them however we can, just like we are doing with the Springboks and Argentina in assisting with their travel plans, as well as making their stay in Australia as safe and as comfortable as possible during the tournament.

"There have been a number of sacrifices made by each of the SANZAAR joint venture partners to get this far and I want to thank all of them for their flexibility and adaptability.

"There is obviously a lot to achieve in the coming months but I'm confident that under the leadership of each of the joint venture partners, that the 2020 Rugby Championship in Australia will be a great success."

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.