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Sanzaar has announced a condensed six-week Castle Lager Rugby Championship schedule that will see the tournament end on 12 December this year, but some big question marks still hang over the tournament that is scheduled to take place in Australia.
The schedule would practically mean that Springbok, Argentinean and All Black players would all have to quarantine away from their families over Christmas, a fact that has not gone down well in New Zealand, who expressed their disappointment with the release of the schedule.
South Africa’s participation in the tournament is also uncertain by Sanzaar’s own admission with the travel restrictions and player welfare issues needing to be settled before a final decision is taken.
The Springboks, defending Rugby Championship and current World Cup holders, are the No 1 side in the world, but many of their players will only be in action for the first time this weekend, where both New Zealand and Australia have completed full domestic competitions and will have two Bledisloe tests under the belt before the Rugby Championship begins.
Argentina are struggling with a dozen players having tested positive for Covid-19, and are currently only able to train with 33 players.
New Zealand CEO Mark Robinson released a statement after the Sanzaar announcement expressing New Zealand’s “disappointment” in the release of the dates. "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 5 December 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 wellbeing 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.
"We will now work through the issues with Rugby Australia and Sanzaar and believe that there are other solutions within the Rugby Championship window," Robinson said.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern has also weighed in, asking Sanzaar to stick to the "agreement". "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," Adern said.
Rugby Australia CEO Rob Clarke hit back saying that they hoped to be able to complete the six-match tournament in five weeks but the decision was rejected.
On two formal occasions Rugby Australia was supportive of altering the draw so that the Rugby Championship could be played over five weeks ... on both occasions, that proposal was rejected which means there was never an agreement to finish the tournament on Saturday, 5 December 2020," Clarke said in a statement.
Sanzaar said in their statement that the double headers – which see the Boks begin with an "away"game against Argentina in Brisbane, followed by a "home"game against the Wallabies in Sydney – would kick off the tournament on 7 November.
The Boks are scheduled to play back-to-back matches against New Zealand – with an away game in Sydney before 'hosting'the same opponents in Newcastle – before the tournament returns to Sydney for the final two rounds. "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," the statement said.
"Sanzaar explained the incoming teams (Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa) would be required to observe all health regulations around their squads as imposed by the New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland governments. The teams will be kept separate by operating within a 'bubble' during this period with all teams operating in clean environments controlled by NSW police. The wellness of the squads will be continually monitored in line with NSW Heath requirements."Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos said: “It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, but we are delighted that we can now confirm the match dates and venues for The Rugby Championship 2020."
The Rugby Championship is one of the game's showpiece events and includes some of the best rugby talent in the world.
Kick-off times for the double-header matches will be announced in due course.
The Rugby Championship 2020 fixtures:
Round 1 - 7 November in Brisbane
Argentina v South Africa
Australia v New Zealand
Round 2 - 14 November in Sydney
New Zealand v Argentina
South Africa v Australia
Round 3 - 21 November in Sydney
New Zealand v South Africa
Australia v Argentina
Round 4 – 28 November in Newcastle
Argentina v Australia
South Africa v New Zealand
Round 5 – 5 December in Sydney
Argentina v New Zealand
Australia v South Africa
Round 6 – 12 December in Sydney
South Africa v Argentina
Australia v New Zealand.