Rugby: World champions South Africa pull out of Rugby Championship, citing coronavirus 'perfect storm'

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – A coronavirus-induced “perfect storm” forced world champions South Africa to pull out of the 2020 Rugby Championship in Australia, SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said on Friday (Oct 16).

He said factors had contributed to the withdrawal of the Springboks from the Oct 31-Dec 7 tournament included:

– Some local players would have flown to Australia having played just one competitive match instead of the five director of rugby Rassie Erasmus considered to be the bottom line.

– Uncertainty over the availability of many Europe-based South Africans as England and France battle with spikes in Covid-19 cases. The six Springboks based in Japan, including jet-heeled winger Makazole Mapimpi, have played no rugby recently because of the pandemic.

– South African government regulations were unclear regarding whether home-based players could legally leave the country. The Springbok-stacked Stormers, whose squad includes 2019 Rugby World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, will play their first competitive match since March this Saturday.

Harsh lockdown conditions left South African rugby players far behind those in New Zealand and Australia, who resumed playing in mid year, when it came to game-time.

This raised fears that the rusty world champions could be on a hiding to nothing, not only against arch foes New Zealand but also resurgent Australia under new coach Dave Rennie.

“Players in England, Ireland and France are subject to differing local regulations and travel protocols and potentially imminent renewed lockdowns,” said Roux in a statement.

“It was unclear when they would be able to become functioning members of the Springbok squad in Australia.”

Erasmus, who coached South Africa to World Cup glory before returning to his director of rugby role, said the Japan-based Springboks had “played no rugby at all”.

Roux added: “Public safety concerns come first and there is no way we could take short cuts to get them out of their host countries and into a Springbok bubble.

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“It seems impossible that the Springboks will not play a Test in 2020, but public health and safety have been the primary concerns.

“All we can do now is enjoy our domestic competitions and find ways to be ready for the arrival of the British and Irish Lions in 2021.”

Preparing the Springboks for a three-Test series against the Lions next July and August without playing a Test since November 2019 is the huge challenge facing SA Rugby.

The cash-strapped governing body will also suffer financially as they stood to earn a reported 300 million rand (S$24.5 million) by competing in Australia.

A Lions tour will be a money-spinner, but only if locals and British and Irish visitors are allowed to attend.

Spectators are currently barred from attending sport in South Africa and Roux has admitted that a closed-doors tour would not be financially viable.

With the Springboks missing, the Rugby Championship will be contested by Australia, Argentina and New Zealand with one fixture on six consecutive Saturdays from Oct 31.

South Africa won the 2019 edition, which was reduced to a single round because of the World Cup.

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