New Zealand, near certainties to host the Rugby Championship for months, were hamstrung by their government’s reluctance to relax quarantine protocols and are ruing what they believe could be an overall loss of $100 million in revenue to the country.
The NZR will, however, get an even split of profits with Australia, South Africa and Argentina as part of an “all-hands-in-the-middle” model.
“It’s a very fair approach,” said interim RA boss Rob Clarke. “I think it incentivises everyone to make it successful.”
In New Zealand, teams would have been forced into strict hotel isolation for four days. From days five to seven, they’d be in a bubble of 15 people. From days eight to 14, that bubble would expand to 25, which, as Robinson said, “makes it difficult for the way teams want to prepare”. He was referencing South Africa and Argentina, who have played next to no rugby this year.
Sniffing out a chance to swoop, Australia made an offer to SANZAAR on Thursday evening that sides could effectively do whatever they wanted when they landed, as long as they were in a special “hub” and that normal NSW Health protocols were adhered to.
By Friday morning, Argentina Rugby announced five players and three staff members – including head coach Mario Ledesma – had tested positive to COVID-19 on top of six players who tested positive last week.
Nonetheless, SANZAAR and Clarke quickly moved to ensure things would be under control by the time Argentina arrived in Australia, potentially as early as the end of this month, as well as pointing out that dialogue is ongoing with relevant government and health authorities.
They’re so confident that Clarke even floated the possibility of the Pumas playing trial matches against an Australia A side or even a Super Rugby franchise.
Argentina players will be required to undergo strict testing before and after arriving in Australia, however it is unclear what will occur if a player tests positive.
SANZAAR does have a back-up three-team model in case there is a major issue.
“The Pumas have gone into a bubble arrangement over there,” Clarke said. “They’re having regular testing and those that have tested positive … are being removed from the environment and separated. That will happen during the course of them being in the bubble and we anticipate that they will be all negative and ready to go sooner than later and will be able to fulfil all health requirements and protocols here in Australia.
“It’s going to be consistent with how the NSW Government have treated other visiting teams like the New Zealand Warriors. It will be a bubble concept and testing will take place over a 14-day quarantine period within that bubble where full training can take place. That has been the government’s position to date and they’ve reassured us that will be remain their position and that will remain consistent for every team in the TRC.”
As Australian officials began planning tournament logistics, the disconnect between New Zealand Rugby and its government became clear.
This wasn’t SANZAAR politics, as New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern had claimed, yet simply a case of inflexible quarantine policies with plenty at stake for a rugby mad nation whose fans did not take the news well at all.
“We worked incredibly hard to see if we could loosen restrictions around those bubbles but that’s ultimately where the government landed and had a major part to play in the decision,” Robinson said.
Although the Wallabies will still have to travel to New Zealand first for two Bledisloe matches – dates are yet to be finalised but likely to be on October 17 and 24 – and undergo those strict quarantine protocols that cost the Kiwis in the end, Clarke said he sympathised with his colleague.
“I feel sorry for Mark and the team,” Clarke said. “In other ways I’m delighted for us and for Australian rugby and the fans of rugby because this is going to be the equivalent of a mini World Cup played over six weeks and I think you couldn’t get a better finish to the year.”
Clarke said ANZ Stadium, Bankwest Stadium and McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle were in the frame to host matches, while hub locations for teams, as well as fixtures, would be worked through in coming weeks.
Stadiums with 50 per cent crowd capacity could be on the cards, while Clarke also said there would be no broadcast implications given a full Rugby Championship had been organised.
“The broadcast situation was already baked into previous deals … nothing changes there,” he said. “I know the broadcasters are very excited by it and so they should be. I know Fox and Ten will love the fact they’re getting such quality rugby at that time of the year and will drive, I hope, some subscriptions and viewership for them.”
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Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald