Rugby Championship schedule presents new problem

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — No sooner had the Rugby Championship schedule been released on Thursday, there were disagreement and doubt.

The tournament in bio-secure bubbles in Australia will feature six doubleheaders over six consecutive weekends from Nov. 7 to Dec. 12, but it's still littered with problems.

Going that deep into December angered New Zealand, which said the All Blacks will miss Christmas with their families because they will still be in quarantine on their return home.

The participation of South Africa, the defending champion and world champion, remained uncertain as the government hasn’t yet fully relaxed a ban on international travel for sporting events, although that is expected to happen in time for the tournament.

The more pressing concern for the Springboks was player welfare. South African teams still haven’t played any top-level rugby since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The sport will make its return in South Africa this weekend, but the players will have had precious little game time.

“South Africa's participation remains conditional on the relaxation of the government's current ban on international sporting participation and the outcome of assessments of high performance and player welfare issues,” SA Rugby said.

Argentina has similar concerns to South Africa. Home-based Pumas have played no rugby since March. They started non-contact training in August until more than a dozen players and at least five coaches caught the virus and set back plans to begin contact training this month.

Then there’s questions about how to integrate Pumas based in England and France. Clubs are obliged to release them, but only days before the tournament, which means quarantine rules in Australia could force them to miss a round or two.

Australia won hosting rights for the Rugby Championship over New Zealand due to more relaxed quarantine conditions.

Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, where the championship opens with Pumas-Springboks and Wallabies-All Blacks, has been permitted to fill to 50% capacity, meaning 25,000 fans could attend.

The reduction of COVID-19 restrictions in New South Wales means stadiums can also operate at half capacity, which will allow for potentially 40,000 spectators at the Olympic stadium in Sydney, where the tournament ends on Dec. 12.

But New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said in a statement he was disappointed championship organizer Sanzaar has not been more sensitive to the quarantine regulations that will apply to the All Blacks when they return home. The New Zealand government could grant exemptions for some players to leave the mandatory 14-day isolation earlier but that is unlikely.

"We were working on the understanding, and all our planning and scheduling was on the basis that the All Blacks’ last match would be on Dec. 5 to give our players and management time to get home, undertake the 14 days’ quarantine back in New Zealand, and then be with their families for Christmas, as will be the case for the other three teams in the tournament,” Robinson said.

"We understand the commercial considerations in the scheduling. However, the well-being of our people is an incredibly important factor in this also. We are committed to playing in the Rugby Championship and we know the scheduling of matches has been a complex and dynamic issue to work through, especially with quarantine protocols. But we haven’t agreed to this schedule and are disappointed at the announcement.”

Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said they will continue to try and resolve the dates with all stakeholders.

“We've exhausted every other option and only one at its very furthest -- working through how best we can manage the quarantine,” Marinos said in Sydney at the official announcement. ”We’re going to have to do what we can to make sure we get the desired result for both parties.”

Sanzaar said the non-Australian teams would be required to observe all health regulations around their squads as imposed by the New South Wales and Queensland governments.

The Olympic stadium -- renamed ANZ Stadium -- and Bankwest Stadium in Sydney will each host two rounds, and one will be at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle.


Rugby Championship schedule (times to be determined):

Nov. 7, Brisbane: Argentina vs. South Africa, x-Australia vs. New Zealand

Nov. 14, Bankwest Stadium, Sydney: New Zealand vs. Argentina, South Africa vs. Australia

Nov. 21, ANZ Stadium, Sydney: New Zealand vs. South Africa, Australia vs. Argentina

Nov. 28, McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle: Argentina vs. Australia, South Africa vs. New Zealand

Dec. 5, Bankwest Stadium, Sydney: Argentina vs. New Zealand, Australia vs. South Africa

Dec. 12: ANZ Stadium, Sydney: South Africa vs. Argentina, x-Australia vs. New Zealand

x- Bledisloe Cup tests; first two are Oct. 11 and Oct. 18 in New Zealand.


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