New Zealand Rugby on Thursday refused to rule out boycotting the end of this year’s Rugby Championship in Australia after organizers unveiled a schedule that would leave the All Blacks stranded in quarantine at Christmas.
The row overshadowed plans for a tournament that host Australia described as a “mini-World Cup” over six weeks, with double-header matches each weekend featuring the Wallabies, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina.
“Six unmissable back-to-back double-headers featuring four of the very best Test nations in world rugby – all in our backyard – this really is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Rugby Australia interim chief executive Rob Clarke said.
Southern hemisphere governing body SANZAAR is staging the tournament in one country for the first time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the opening round in the Queensland state capital Brisbane on November 7.
But it was the final round – which has the Wallabies playing the All Blacks in Sydney on December 12 – that needled NZR.
With the New Zealand government enforcing a strict two-week coronavirus quarantine on all international arrivals, the schedule means the All Blacks face being isolated from their families at Christmas even if they fly home straight after the match.
“We haven’t agreed to this schedule and are disappointed at the announcement,” NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said.
He said discussions prior to this week focused on the All Blacks’ matches finishing on December 5, giving ample time for pre-Christmas quarantine in New Zealand.
Robinson said he understood commercial considerations were behind the late schedule change, but argued “the wellbeing of our people is an incredibly important factor in this also.”
Asked if the All Blacks could boycott the final round, Robinson replied: “It’s far too early to land on exactly what the solutions or outcomes are at the moment. We’re going to take a few days to keep working with all the key players.”
‘Too much at stake’
New Zealand was initially set to host the tournament, but it was switched earlier this month because Australia offered more flexible quarantine rules.
Robinson said that under the original arrangements, NZR had agreed to an Australian request that the Wallabies finish in time to be home with their families at Christmas.
Rugby Australia said it had been willing to look at compressing the Championship’s six rounds into a five-week period, but it was rejected by the other SANZAAR partners, South Africa and Argentina.
SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said the virus situation meant the Springboks and Pumas had been unable to prepare as well as the Wallabies and All Blacks, and asking players to compete in six Tests over five weeks risked “career-ending injuries.”
He acknowledged the December 12 option was an issue for New Zealand, but said “we’ve exhausted every other option,” but hoped officials in Wellington could tweak quarantine rules for the team.
Asked if he thought the dispute would result in a curtailed Rugby Championship, he replied: “I don’t think so, there’s too much at stake.”
RA’s Clarke believed the issue could be resolved before the tournament’s final round.
“We have plenty of time to find a solution,” he said.