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The Wrap: Wallabies take shape but Rugby Championships are far from settled

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13th September, 2020
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Friday’s announcement that Australia had been awarded hosting rights for the 2020 Rugby Championships was a welcome shot of good news for a sport that has suffered a horrible year.

Interim Rugby Australia CEO Rob Clarke fronted media like a man content at having ticked off another important box.

In securing delivery of a two-round Rugby Championships, he not only fulfilled broadcast contract obligations for 2020 but, by condensing matches into a single-location, six-week tournament during what will otherwise be a quiet time on the national sporting calendar, he provided an opportunity to please its broadcast partners and gain the attention of potential new viewers.

The tournament is scheduled to run from November 7 to December 12, with matches to be held at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium and Bankwest Stadium, Newcastle’s McDonald Jones Stadium, and one round at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. That is, of course, if Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Jeanette Young agrees that health and quarantine concerns will be met through SANZAAR demonstrating sufficient economic benefit for the state.

The tournament will be preceded by two Bledisloe Cup matches in New Zealand, in Auckland and Wellington, likely for October 17 and 24.

That’s the good news. With Australia’s players about to come off contract en-masse on September 30th if Rugby Australia isn’t able to restore contracts back to their pre-COVID levels, or negotiate another reduction/extension, it is imperative to at least bake some certainty into both the schedule and the P and L.

Rob Clarke

Rob Clarke. (Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

However if Clarke, and his dwindling number of Rugby Australia staff sat back to enjoy a wine and cheese after Friday’s announcement, it may have become apparent that the cheese was of the Swiss variety, and there are still some major hurdles to overcome before the tournament is played out as intended.

Most curious was South African Rugby president Jurie Roux ‘welcoming the announcement’, but at the same time, being ‘unable to confirm South Africa’s participation’.

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As one of only four competing nations, world champions to boot, and no replacement nation waiting in the wings to take their place, it would seem that a hasty confirmation of their participation would be in everyone’s best interests.

Like everyone, South Africa has its hands full right now, trying to get a domestic competition off the ground in a COVID environment far more challenging than what Australia and New Zealand faces, as well as having wider fears and uncertainties around where their rugby future lies.

There are concerns around feeding domestic-based players, without rugby since March, to the match-hardened trans-Tasman lions, with ex-Springbok captain Wynand Claassen saying it would be “madness” for South Africa to play in the tournament.

Conditioning concerns are mitigated by the number of leading players who are now active in the UK and France – although a serious knee injury sustained over the weekend by Handre Pollard, playing for Montpellier, will not have helped the mood.

The same concerns apply to Argentina, with the Jaguares now having dissolved into international globetrotters. There is now the added complication of their coach, Mario Ledesma and a number of players, having tested positive for COVID.

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All are asymptomatic, nevertheless an already compromised preparation will be impeded even further, and while there are plans for them to arrive in Australia early for two warm-up matches, there will be unease over the levelness of the playing field and their competitiveness.

With the tournament scheduled for competition on December 12, concerns have been raised in New Zealand by players anxious to know if return quarantine requirements will have them enjoying a boxed Xmas lunch in a three-star Auckland airport hotel room as opposed to being at home with their families.

NZ Rugby CEO Mark Robinson moved quickly to provide reassurance, stating that New Zealand Rugby will support any player who wishes to skip the tournament. Perhaps that ‘support’ might be better expressed by tweaking the schedule enough to have everyone back at home in their own beds before Santa comes calling.

Robinson was also called on to deal with media outlets in New Zealand and Australia, who were angling to paint the announcement as some kind of coup for Rugby Australia, victorious in a ‘bidding war’ for hosting rights over a snubbed New Zealand. Some even rolled out the ghost of 2003, ridiculously asserting that New Zealand had once again been betrayed by its trans-Tasman rival.

SANZAAR head Andy Marinos quickly called this out for the nonsense it was. Anyone with even a passing interest in the pandemic could see that there were only four potential hub locations – New Zealand, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

With three of those holding elections in the near future, with their leaders all on a mission to demonstrate how committed they are to keeping their constituents ‘safe’ no matter the cost, it quickly became clear that New South Wales was the location offering the fewest hoops to jump through.

Springboks

Will South Africa participate in the Rugby Championship? (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Consequently, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clumsy attempt to deflect blame fell flat. SANZAAR has its shortcomings but to point to rugby politics stripping the event from New Zealand was an unfortunate mis-step. Politics yes, but her own, not rugby’s.

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With New Zealand Rugby fully on board, this was a simple, logistical, operational and financial decision for SANZAAR to make. Expect to see a rash of ‘I love rugby and I vote’ bumper stickers to appear on New Zealand’s highways in the coming days.

Also on the highway – to Melbourne – are the Rebels, three long months after escaping Victoria and beating border and travel restrictions that saw some of their squad locked out of Super Rugby AU.

Their 25-13 loss to the Reds was a valiant effort, the visitors once again dominating territory and possession, but coming up short due to some bad luck (Isi Naisarani can’t take a trick at the moment), and lack of a clinical hard edge in the red zone.

That inability to select the right option and execute try-scoring plays has proven to be the Rebels’ Achilles heel all season, leading the competition by a street in bombed tries and wasteful kicks ahead. They will go into next season with most of their forward pack intact and, with the prospect of a few home games thrown in, won’t be feeling too downcast about their result this year.

Reds fans also have good reason to look forward to 2021 – the prospect of a centre/wing combination of Jordan Petaia, Filipo Daugunu and Suliasi Vunivalu is mouth-watering – but in the meantime, all focus will be on next weeks’ final in Canberra.

Jordan Petaia runs the ball for the Reds

Jordan Petaia (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Aside from a lack of numbers at one breakdown presenting a try to Marika Koroibete, their defence once again held firm, and the way they quickly realigned behind the advantage line, to turn a dominant spot tackle by Campbell Magnay into a try by Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, was highly impressive.

Their scrum eventually asserted itself and, like all good sides, despite having fewer opportunities on attack, they made them count when offered the chance.

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Taniela Tupou steaming onto an inside ball, running faster than any prop has a right to at any time, let alone the 75th minute of a semi-final, was a sight to behold, and speaks to the overt enthusiasm and spirit of this Reds’ side. An intriguing and closely fought final awaits.

Also eagerly awaited will be the outcome of two judiciary hearings, one in New Zealand for Sio Tomkinson, the other in France for Kurtley Beale, after both players were sent off over the weekend for high contact to the head of an opponent.

Tomkinson is a serial offender, in the last two seasons having received cards or suspensions for high contact on Brodie Retallick, Tom Banks and Oli Jager, before taking out the Blues’ Simon Hickey with an ugly shoulder to the head on Saturday. Put simply – if he isn’t prepared to change his technique or intent, then he needs to be directed to a different profession.

Both England and Australia fell short of the mark last week, with Owen Farrell to miss only five matches for his high-end near decapitation, and Lachie Swinton not even cited for a shoulder charge to the head.

If Tomkinson and Beale are smart, they will already have character references from Eddie Jones at the ready, taken ownership of a lost-dogs home, and have collated video footage of them helping old ladies across the street.

But let’s hope the respective judiciaries consign all of that nonsense to the bin where it belongs, and – unlike England and Australia – treat dangerous high contact with the seriousness it demands.

In the meantime, Wallabies’ coach Dave Rennie announced yesterday a 44-man squad for the eight upcoming Test matches. It’s a squad that blends vast experience, with reward for performance in Super Rugby and casts an eye for the future, clearly marking a new path away from the Cheika era.

With such a large squad at his disposal, Rennie agreed with the proposition that there will be a number of players who won’t get any game time, but was at pains to stress that he wants all players to be pushing hard for Test spots.

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A close-up of Wallabies coach Dave Rennie

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Rennie was also happy to talk about players who missed out, like Naisarani, Jack Dempsey, Tevita Kuridrani and Jock Campbell, and how each of them have been provided with work-ons to ensure that they aren’t completely out of the picture.

Naisarani’s omission captured a lot of attention, but he has had an injury interrupted season, at times is prone to skill lapses, and doesn’t always convince as the natural, ball-player that some other contenders might be. He has hard shoulders and a strong work ethic, and at only 25, is young enough to come again, but his omission is not the surprise it may seem.

With each Rugby Championship squad to comprise 46 players and 12 officials, many were quick to focus on who the two players might be who will complete the squad, now that Rennie has been afforded two selections from previously ineligible overseas-based players.

Rory Arnold, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon remain popular picks but, until such time an announcement is made, speculation will reign.

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As a final observation, the COVID environment forcing SANZAAR to sanction such large squads of 46, is also a blessing for Rugby Australia, which, over the last few months, has had to deal with mischievous player managers using the uncertainty around future competitions, money and Wallabies selection, to encourage more movement overseas.

With this squad selection, there are now 44 players locked into a Wallabies jersey, or the promise that if they work hard during the camps and continue to develop, of a future Wallabies jersey.

No matter where their salaries eventually settle post-September 30, it would be quite some call for any of these players to hand back their jersey and walk out of camp.