By Aiden McLaughlin
With New Zealand preparing for a 3pm update from Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield, an email arrived in my inbox at 2.52pm on Friday afternoon:
‘All Blacks and Black Ferns home Tests cancelled; NZR pauses All Blacks Perth travel’
I had a quick read but then it was back to the Beehive. Once that was done, I read it in more depth.
The decision to formally cancel the All Blacks v South Africa tests in Dunedin on 25th September and Auckland on 2nd October was not unexpected. The prospect of the Trans-Tasman bubble starting up before then is pretty much non-existent. The knock on effect is that the two Black Ferns matches against the Wallaroos are also cancelled. The second of those was part of a double header with the All Blacks match on 2nd October. The first match was scheduled for Christchurch on 26th September, but once the Eden Park matches were cancelled, it made little sense for the Wallaroos to undertake two weeks quarantine in New Zealand for 80 minutes of rugby. The statement contained the following:
‘NZR has also confirmed that, given the current uncertainty over The Rugby Championship schedule, it has made the decision not to send the All Blacks to Perth this weekend for the third Bledisloe Cup Test which was scheduled to be played at Optus Stadium on Saturday 28 August.’
NZR CEO Mark Robinson went on to say:
‘Without complete certainty on the team’s next movements around The Rugby Championship we felt it was prudent for the team to stay put in New Zealand until SANZAAR have announced the full tournament schedule. Once the team leaves our shores, they currently can’t return until November 23 post their Northern Tour, so given the uncertainty, it makes sense to pause and get more clarity on these fixtures.’
At 4.30pm, barely 90 minutes after NZR had released their statement, it was the turn of Rugby Australia to have their say:
‘Rugby Australia has this afternoon been made aware of New Zealand Rugby’s unilateral decision to suspend the All Blacks’ flight to Perth ahead of the scheduled Rugby Championship match on August 28, despite positive discussions with all relevant stakeholders and a SANZAAR call schedule for later today.’
RA CEO Andy Marinos also commented:
‘It’s incredibly disappointing to be informed of this decision via the media, despite having a conversation with the CEO moments before and there was no mention that this was the intention. The news of the cancellation of the O’Reilly Cup Tests is equally as disappointing for our Wallaroos, who were ready to play their first test of the year.’
A couple of hours later, RA released a recording of Wallabies coach Dave Rennie speaking to Australian media. This is how it started:
‘Dave, if we can get your initial reaction to the news that the game next week won’t go ahead?’
‘Yeah, bloody angry.’
‘Can you elaborate on that and what it means to the team the way this has all come about?’
‘Yeah, look I think it’s disappointing how it’s been communicated. Our boys all found out through social media. So, you know I thought New Zealand Rugby didn’t even have the respect to consult RA about their decision and so that’s hugely disappointing. We made a commitment to play a test in Auckland on 7th August and while we had players who’d been away from home for six weeks already out of New South Wales, we honoured that commitment. They asked us to play an extra game because we couldn’t go back to Wellington on the 28th and we honoured that as well and they made a commitment to come here on the 21st which they pushed back to the 28th and now they’re not coming.’
Rennie went on to say:
‘I’ve had a couple of years now where I’m on the other side of the ditch and it’s been really disappointing the way they’ve conducted themselves over that period and if you cast your mind back to last year where we it looked like all the Rugby Championship was going to be played in New Zealand; they were Covid free – we requested to play 6 tests in 5 weeks so we could get back and do quarantine before Christmas. New Zealand wouldn’t support that, but when it changed and they had to come over here, of course they were requesting that they wanted to get their players home and they were complaining that they were going to quarantine through Christmas and of course we moved a test early to allow them to get out earlier so they could do that. My experience over the last 18 months is there’s only one partner that’s prepared to be flexible and help the other out.’
Keiran Cleary is the Wallabies physio and this is what he had to say on Twitter yesterday:
Haven’t been home since early June to see family. We moved game to 28th for vaccination reasons. Now treading water here in Perth and they throw player welfare out there for refusing to come. Players and staff here haven’t been home for 10 weeks. Spare me.
— keiran cleary (@kjjc) August 20, 2021
Let’s go back a couple of days; on Thursday evening, reports started to emerge that SANZAAR were considering a relocation of the Rugby Championship to Europe, with four double headers in Paris, London, Dublin and Cardiff. The other two options to host the Championship are Queensland and South Africa.
On Friday, Rugby Australia reportedly asked NZR for three more hours to try and get an agreement from the Queensland Government that would mean they could host the Championship. It’s understood NZR turned down that request for more time. With the All Blacks pulling the pin on their flight to Perth, it seems that any decision from Queensland isn’t likely until Monday or Tuesday next week.
The third option, South Africa hosting the Championship, is thought to be unlikely. With no crowds and the knock-on effect of potential problems for the All Blacks in entering Washington DC for their test against the USA on October 23rd, it doesn’t make much sense for NZR to agree to it.
Europe provides the attraction of full stadiums which in turn will see income so desperately needed by the respective Unions. The SANZAAR teams all have test matches scheduled in Europe in late October and throughout November, so if they are already there on the back of a relocated Championship , that’s a good thing for all of them, although the All Blacks do have that test match in Washington DC before four tests in Europe against Wales, Italy, Ireland and France.
This afternoon, Mark Robinson spoke to Jason Pine on Newstalk ZB.
‘If you can picture our situation, we’ve got a touring party of over 60 people potentially about to be on the road for probably over 15 weeks, not able to get back into the country until 23rd November and then have two weeks of MIQ. For us it was really important to have certainty around this in terms of the player welfare and our staff welfare as we looked at this and we tried to give Rugby Australia as much time as possible until Friday afternoon to have quarantine tidied up with Queensland. That was unable to be achieved and therefore we weren’t able to really get on a plane, which would have been today by the way, at such short notice and be in a position to play that game in Perth. We worked really hard, certainly had these conversations through the week. We outlined our position in writing on Thursday morning and ultimately we just weren’t in a situation to have confidence to be able to jump on the plane tonight.’
Pine ‘Mark, do you reckon it’s reasonable to demand certainty of the schedule in the uncertainty of a Covid World?’
Robinson: ‘Yeah, I think we’re getting to a stage now, you’ve got to remember here we’re talking about four months where people are going to be away so under that scenario we think before we set off with no real understanding of when we might be able to come home, we think that pausing for the sake of a few more days is reasonable for our people at this time.’
The All Blacks are scheduled to play France in Paris on 20th November, which ties in with a return date of 23rd November – but then Robinson also says ‘with no real understanding of when we might be able to come home’ so what are we missing here? Perhaps he misspoke? Given the scale of the tour, will there be players coming and going and those that are heading back to New Zealand early are after certainty? I’d imagine it’s likely that the full touring squad won’t go from the Rugby Championship to the USA; perhaps some players will fly straight there from New Zealand and others may even come home at that stage; with a Rugby World Cup two years ago and a lengthy period in Australia for last year’s Rugby Championship, this will be the third year in a row that many of these players will be on a lengthy All Blacks tour. A cumulative effect on player and staff well-being needs to be acknowledged in what seems to be a here and now situation – player and staff welfare is extremely important. By pulling out of next week’s game and the rescheduled Bledisloe Cup test perhaps not happening until mid-October, NZR and the players will have gained a few extra weeks at home.
Australia are waiting as are South Africa and Argentina. The reality is that if the All Blacks had boarded their flight to Perth today, they would not be home until late November and they wouldn’t be out of MIQ until early December. Whether or not they know where they would have played or traveled to after Perth on 28th August, that wouldn’t have changed; they weren’t coming back to New Zealand after Perth via a Trans-Tasman bubble or through MIQ. They are on the road, so they could have got to Perth and when the Rugby Championship schedule is finalised (hopefully early next week) they and Australia would have traveled together to that destination and South Africa and Argentina would have joined them. That won’t be happening now. Whoever’s side you are on and whatever you think the best course of action was, at a time when the game needs to come together, Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby have never been so far apart.
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