So, overnight, it seems that the inevitable has happened; South Africa has withdrawn from the Rugby Championship. With official confirmation a matter of hours away, it will finally bring to an end to the will they, won’t day saga around their participation. Unless an unlikely rabbit is pulled from a hat, Australia, New Zealand and Australia will go it alone this year. A late substitute seems unlikely. No international teams would be in a position to make themselves available at this late stage and a hybrid selection (the Barbarians for example) would, if it was in any way practical, be seen for what it is – making up the numbers. It’s not as if they could realistically be expected to be competitive.
So, the Rugby Championship (if it can still be called that) will have two Bledisloe Cup encounters to kick things off and then, let’s see how Argentina get on against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
The majority of the Argentine squad are already in Sydney preparing, with the remaining squad members from Europe due to join them next week. That addition has already taken a hit however with first five Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and prop Enrique Pieretto withdrawn due to ‘documentation problems.’ The squad’s match preparation will be mixed. The European based players will have varying amounts of game time under their belts, but the others will not have had that benefit, with the domestic game in Argentina having lay dormant since March.
The contrast is stark; a can do attitude from Argentina vs a won’t do attitude from South Africa. How Argentina will perform is anyone’s guess, but being cynical, it doesn’t look great. On the back of Super Rugby, Australia and New Zealand will have had their four Bledisloe Cup matches completed before Argentina get going (apart from playing a couple of warm up matches against Australian state sides). Then, Argentina will play their four test matches in consecutive weeks, with Australia and New Zealand getting their bye/rest weeks. By the end, Argentina might just be hitting their straps.
South Africa on the other hand, will be playing Super Rugby Unlocked while the others do battle in Australia. It seems inevitable now that they won’t play test rugby again until (and if) the British & Irish Lions hit their shores next July, 20 months after their last match in the Rugby World Cup final.
It is understandable, to an extent, that South Africa don’t want to come to the Rugby Championship underprepared. As World Cup holders they appear not to want to risk their reputation and underperform/suffer bad defeats. But that said (and it’s easy to say from the other side) we are in a unique year for obvious reasons. Would anyone want to take their World Cup win away if they performed badly over the next couple of months? If the Lions do make it over to them next year, would anyone be that concerned about their form this year? Would the tour mean any less? From a distance, no; but I’m not a South African.
Equally, if Argentina lose all their games by 40/50 points, is anyone going to laugh at them? Will we be jumping up saying they should be thrown out in future years for being uncompetitive? Surely not. Although there may not be an official asterisk next to this year’s competition, people will always remember and acknowledge the circumstances. Argentina will be applauded for getting on the plane and making things happen, whatever the result. For South Africa, it’ll be remembered as a season where they could have played, but chose not to, and that’s something rugby fans not just there but around the world will be disappointed about for a while.
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