Rugby World Cup holders South Africa yesterday pulled out of the Rugby Championship over complications caused by COVID-19, badly diminishing the tournament and raising further questions about their future in southern hemisphere rugby union.
The Springboks, who have not played since winning their third Rugby World Cup in Japan nearly a year ago, cited government travel restrictions, player welfare and safety concerns for the withdrawal.
It means the competition in Australia from Oct. 31 is to be slashed from 12 games to six, involving only Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. The pullout by the defending champions also prompted speculation about future editions of the championship, after South Africa walked away from the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby tournament last month in favor of Europe’s PRO14.
South African Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said that the withdrawal was a “hugely disappointing outcome for supporters and commercial partners, but the ongoing impacts of the pandemic in multiple dispensations mean we are unable to deliver a Springbok team without seriously compromising player welfare, apart from other logistical challenges.”
While New Zealand resumed playing in June and Australia soon after, COVID-19 forced a longer shutdown in South Africa, with the Springboks’ players facing the prospect of traveling to Australia with only 80 minutes of playing time under their belt.
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber wanted close to 500 minutes.
There were suggestions they could be replaced by a Barbarians side or Australia A to ensure the four-team draw stayed intact, but organizers opted to return the tournament to its former tri-nations format.
The Wallabies face the All Blacks in Sydney on Oct. 31 to kickoff the event and then again on Nov. 7 in Brisbane. Both teams then take turns playing Argentina in subsequent weeks.
The Rugby Championship was originally scheduled to begin in August until the pandemic forced a postponement. It was then supposed to feature six straight double-headers through next month and early December, but that plan fell through when New Zealand demanded their final game on Dec. 12 be moved so they could complete the quarantine on their return home before Christmas Day.
Andy Marinos, chief executive of SANZAAR, the tournament’s governing body, said that “COVID is just a gift that keeps on giving.”
“SANZAAR recognizes the challenges and adversity that the national unions have had to face this year due to the pandemic,” he said. “It is a tribute to the unions in how they have been able to adapt.”
However, South Africa’s no-show could signal an end to the SANZAAR alliance, which has become increasingly tenuous during the pandemic.
“It would not be a surprise if the World Cup champions now play all of their rugby in Europe,” a report in the Sydney Morning Herald said.
The Springboks, whose last match was their win over England in the Rugby World Cup final in November last year, now face the prospect of no Tests until they host the British and Irish Lions in Soweto in July next year — a gap of 20 months.
They are also set to suffer a considerable financial blow with South Africa Rugby standing to lose a reported 300 million rand (US$18.1 million) by not taking part.
The governing body had to slash 1.2 million rand off this year’s budget after the pandemic halted rugby union in South Africa in March.
It suffered losses in 2016 and 2017, before making small profits in the following two years.
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