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Christmas alone?: NZ upset with Rugby Championship schedule

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand Rugby has reacted angrily to the schedule for the four-nation Rugby Championship, accusing its Australian counterpart and southern hemisphere organizers Sanzaar of breaching a commitment to have the All Blacks home for Christmas.

Under the schedule released in Sydney on Thursday by Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos, the All Blacks will play their last match in the six-week championship on Dec. 12. That would mean players and team management, many of whom have young families, would not complete their 14-day period of mandatory isolation on their return to New Zealand before Christmas Day.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said Thursday the schedule broke a firm commitment from Rugby Australia and Sanzaar that New Zealand would play its final match on Dec. 5, giving team members plenty of time to rejoin their families for Christmas.

Robinson has indicated New Zealand will still participate in the championship alongside Australia, Argentina and South Africa. But he said NZR will talk with its players and consider a number of options, one of which might be skipping the final match against Australia in Sydney.

“We’re looking a whole lot of different options at the moment,” Robinson said. “We’ll keep working with Rugby Australia and Sanzaar on those. We’ve raised a lot of those in the last few days.

“We need to just take some stock now, go back to our people and have a conversation with team and management and see where it sits with them and then take things from there.”

New Zealand was originally chosen to host the tournament but lost the event to Australia because of that country's more lenient quarantine regulations which would allow teams to train throughout their time in managed isolation.

Robinson said New Zealand had intended to hold the tournament over five weeks, not six as Australia has planned, to allow visiting teams to return home by Christmas. He expected Australia would do the same for New Zealand.

“That was always the principle we were working on,” Robinson said. “We were committed to the Australians being back at home with their families before Christmas."

Australian media reports Thursday appeared to confirm Robinson’s claim Rugby Australia had agreed to a schedule which would have seen New Zealand play its final match on Dec. 5.

But Marinos angrily denied any such commitment had been made and said New Zealand had been fully consulted before the schedule was released.

“They’ve been fully consulted and have been part of the process right from the get-go,” Marinos said. “And we understand their concern around them not wanting to have their players in a quarantine process over Christmas. But we have also agreed that we’re going to continue to work and see how best we can work around the solution.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s a significant amount of compromise and sacrifice from all four countries that are playing in this competition. All of them have had to spend extended periods of time away from homes.”

Marinos suggested the All Blacks could be home for Christmas if the New Zealand government relaxed its quarantine regulations. But that is not likely and the New Zealand government feels it has already stretched the rules to allow two Bledisloe Cup tests between the All Blacks and Wallabies to go ahead in New Zealand next month.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said she also believed there was an agreement in place that meant the All Blacks would be back on Dec. 6.

“It’s fair to say there was an agreement that those games would conclude by the sixth of December and if everyone sticks to that, then it wouldn’t be an issue,” Ardern said.

Marinos said compressing the tournament into five weeks, as New Zealand suggested, could risk “career-ending” injuries to players.

Under the schedule released Thursday, the tournament will be played as a series of six doubleheaders over six weekends, beginning in Brisbane on Nov. 7 and ending in Sydney on Dec. 12.

The scheduling dispute is the latest move in an increasingly bitter relationship between New Zealand and Australia in which Sanzaar has often ruled against New Zealand.

New Zealand has long felt the poor standard of Australia’s Super Rugby teams over several years has damaged the spectator appeal of the Super Rugby tournament, and its commercial viability. The decision to move the Rugby Championship from New Zealand to Australia increased the animosity of the relationship in recent weeks.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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