Rugby world is no longer marching to New Zealand’s drum

Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane and Hoskins Sotutu run through drills during training in Whakatane ahead of the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship. Picture: Getty Images

Amid all the bleating from New Zealand about the scheduling for The Rugby Championship, what was missing was an acknowledgment that the tournament was still alive and going ahead.

True, one can never be too prescriptive about these things in Pandemic World. As it is, South Africa’s participation is still conditional on its government giving permission for the Springboks to take part in international competition. So that could be the end of the tournament. Or Argentina might have a coronavirus flare-up. Or Australia.

As events in Britain have shown — Victoria, too, for that matter — the course of this pandemic has been anything but linear. On too many occasions the virus has doubled back on itself, forcing old restrictions to be reimposed. Sporting administrators — so often the butt of our jokes — do deserve some respect for factoring in all the constantly-changing variables and still producing a workable competition.

Yet New Zealand’s role throughout this pandemic season deserves closer scrutiny. Right from the outset, the Kiwis have marched to their own beat and expected the world to change step and fall into line. Once, they might have. It’s a curious and illogical thing, but rugby administrators earn kudos and respect in direct proportion to how their team is performing — even though they generally have nothing to do with it.

If their team is going well — and that almost always applies to the All Blacks — NZ’s senior officials are considered to be the font of all knowledge. For a brief time, this also used to work for Australia. Once it used to exercise considerable clout in world rugby circles. Not only was everyone mimicking how the Wallabies players and recruiting Australian coaches, but they would all sit humbly at the feet of people like John O’Neill and wait for the next lesson to begin.

Now O’Neill — with whom I enjoyed many a good scrap — was a very good administrator but even more than that, he was a lucky one. He just happened to be in office when John Eales and Tim Horan and Matthew Burke were in their prime. He admits that himself. But when O’Neill spoke, the rugby world paid attention.

That is how it has been for New Zealand rugby bosses since pretty much forever. So they would have seen nothing at all out of the ordinary about their behaviour when they released the details of their proposed “trans-Tasman” competition earlier this year. Yet in one fell swoop, they abandoned SANZAAR — at least as far as Super Rugby was concerned — booted South Africa out into the wilderness, so too Argentina, and effectively told Australia it was top-heavy from one to three professional teams. “We would appreciate it if you fixed that problem before submitting your expressions of interest for participating in our competition,” they said.

There would have been plenty of times in the past when Australia would have meekly obliged. But to his resounding credit, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan basically said “get stuffed”, and pretty much in that language. And he went ahead with a stand-alone all-Australian competition which, to almost universal surprise, turned out so well Australia has decided to do it again next year.

Moving on to The Rugby Championship, it is in every nation’s interest the tournament goes ahead, within the constraints of player safety and welfare. Every SANZAAR member is struggling financially and the only way broadcasters will honour the final installment of their 2016-2020 cycle contract is if all 12 matches are played and all four joint venturers are present.

Some fairly left-field proposals have been considered to make the TRC happen, including playing the entire tournament in Uruguay. But NZ was always the first choice — until it wasn’t.

Yet it wasn’t Australian perfidy that cost NZ the tournament. It was the NZ Government’s own inflexible quarantine regulations. As it turns out, those regulations weren’t entirely inflexible because Jacinda Ardern did change them after the Wallabies complained they wouldn’t be competing in the first Bledisloe Test unless they were given adequate time to train together. But by then, The Rugby Championship had already been transferred to Australia.

And, now, this latest example of Kiwi rugby’s myopic worldview: Mark Robinson, the CEO of NZ Rugby, contained himself for precisely seven minutes before issuing a press statement on Thursday complaining that the Kiwis had never agreed to a December 12 date for the final TRC Test. The significance is that 12 plus 14 days of isolation equals December 26 before players will be let out of quarantine. Not ideal by any means, but the problem was that the tournament runs for six weekends — four joint venturers playing three matches apiece, on a home and away basis — and couldn’t really start any earlier than November 7 because South Africa and Argentina have scarcely played any rugby.

NZ wanted the tournament to wind up on December 5, December 6 latest, so its players and officials could spent Christmas with their families. Curiously, this was not a consideration while NZ was hosting the tournament. So the Australians, South Africans and Argentinians could all wander back home for a cheerless Christmas in isolation but the Kiwis would be fine.

Even when the tournament did cross the ditch, Australia said it would be happy to work towards a five-weekend model if that idea could be sold. Eventually it was put to a SANZAAR vote. Australia and NZ supported it, South Africa and Argentina didn’t. It was 2-2 and, where SANZAAR is concerned, all major decisions have to be unanimous. So it stayed.

Twice now, once on the decision to relocate TRC, and again on the competition schedule itself, SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos has had to come out and effectively put the Kiwis in their place. Nothing was “sprung” on them, Marinos insisted, either by Australia or by SANZAAR.

“They (the Kiwis) have been fully consulted and have been part of the process right from the get-go,” Marinos said.

In the end, it may be much ado about nothing. December 12 is a long way off and by then quarantine regulations may have eased sufficiently so that players are able to spend Christmas with their families, not alone in a hotel room. Still, working Christmas Day is all part of a nurse’s life, or a policeman’s or, dare I say it, a journalist’s. But NZ Rugby should also consider stopping and think about how they are behaving — which is to say not very well.

The world is changing. The rugby world most certainly is. Dictating terms is so pre-Covid. Sharing the load, sharing the pain is now the only way to operate.

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