The Rugby Championship 2020 is set to go ahead in New Zealand at the back end of the year, between 7 November and 12 December, in an attempt to catch up on a tournament that could not take place during its normal time-slot due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Zealand’s appeal
New Zealand has successfully contained COVID-19 and has been in a position to present Super Rugby Aotearoa with fans in their stadiums. Coupled with this is the fact that the pandemic is mostly under control in New Zealand, so the risk of infection to players and staff is greatly reduced. The new infections in Auckland have put a slight damper on this though.
In terms of commercial rights, this is a great decision as a product will be delivered to the broadcasters and the rugby public have something to watch. But is it a great rugby decision in terms of a meaningful, competitive tournament?
Rugby Championship 2020
Ryan Jordan considers the flip side of the conversation. Great rugby decisions encourage and reward fair competition. Would this be fair competition or should the All Blacks be handed the trophy and save everybody the time and effort?
World Rugby has decreed a temporary international window, between October 24 and December 5. We have seen professional clubs make it difficult for players to join their national sides during these windows. The main concern though is the mismatch between the international window and the proposed dates of Rugby Championship 2020 when we consider the requirement to go into quarantine after travelling internationally.
For the bulk of the Springbok and Los Pumas, who ply their trade in Europe, the inward bound to trip to New Zealand could prove to be a little tricky. Assuming that they are released on Monday 20 October, they are likely to come out of quarantine around 4 November. That is literally 3 days before having to take part in a Test match. This isn’t what we would call “a train smash”, but certainly less than ideal. It is the return trip that would be cause for concern for Rugby Championship 2020.
On returning to the UK, a traveller is currently required to self-quarantine for 14 days. With the international window closing on 5 December, players based in Europe are likely to be expected to be available to play on 12 December. To be able to do this, they would need to leave New Zealand three weeks before the end of the competition. The only way to get around this would be to get an unlikely relaxation of the quarantine rules. Last Word on Rugby approached a SANZAAR spokesperson with this question and received the following response.
“As to quarantine periods this is a matter between competition organisers and the governments in the territories where the games are to be played and not the responsibility of World Rugby. As far as TRC is concerned there are ongoing discussions on this and we will announce detailed plans as and when we can.”
This isn’t an entirely convincing statement that a fair competition can be presented with all teams being able to field their best teams throughout the tournament.
Argentina – the demise of the Jaguares
Without Super Rugby, the Argentinian Rugby Union simply does not have the financial resources available to retain their marquee players. Added to this, the looming Super Rugby divorce has meant that Argentinian players have no lucrative regional competitions to look forward to.
Players were advised to secure their financial futures elsewhere. The flow of players to European leagues has been a body blow to the concept of keeping players within local structures.
Argentina’s biggest challenge though will be assembling their squad in New Zealand and putting a Test match fit and ready team onto the field. The first time they will assemble as a squad will be when they arrive in New Zealand.
What of the Wallabies?
Australian Rugby has been almost as fortunate as their New Zealand counterparts in that they have been able to present a local version of Super Rugby, albeit without fans in the stadiums. This gives their players game time and a stage to compete on.
The bulk of their squad is likely to come from their domestic teams, but the quarantine considerations would place the use of any marquee players competing outside of Australia for the full duration of the competition would also be compromised.
The Springboks conundrum
The Springboks will have a similar problem to Los Pumas. The bulk of their Rugby World Cup-winning team is now playing in either Europe or Japan. Locally based players are training with their squads, but competitive play has yet to commence.
The reality is that the Springboks, like Los Pumas, would join up as a professional sporting squad for the first time while under quarantine in New Zealand. Throw into the equation that this would be the first run-out under new Head Coach Jacques Nienaber. Neither side would have had enjoyed what would be considered an acceptable lead-up to an international level competition.
Springbok Head Coach Jacques Nienaber has been quoted as stating that if locally based players are not able to play in six domestic matches prior to the start of Rugby Championship 2020, the team would likely not go.
All Blacks hold all the Aces
The All Blacks will be playing all their games on home ground. They will be relatively battle-ready after the Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament. They are likely to continue to play domestic rugby in the Mitre 10 Cup until the start of Rugby Championship 2020.
They will not have been subjected to a quarantine period, carrying on with a relatively normal life. None of their fellow Rugby Championship competitors would have this luxury.
They would also be in a position to have pre-competition training camps. The Wallabies could also do this prior to going into quarantine. The Springboks and Los Pumas simply cannot do this. Many of their players are competing in competitions around the world and attending training camps would be impossible. Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings are not an adequate replacement for a team training camp.
The likely result
It is difficult to contemplate anything other than a relatively easy win for the All Blacks, with the Wallabies finishing a distant second. If they are able to compete, the Springboks and Los Pumas are likely to bring up the rear, with their tournament hopes being over before they have been able to settle themselves as competitive squads.
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