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Sanzaar planning NZ-based Rugby Championship, committed to Super Rugby

South Africa lift the 2019 Rugby Championship trophy (by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Sanzaar, the umbrella body of the South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentinian rugby unions, has identified New Zealand as the preferred destination for the 2020 Rugby Championship, adding that its organisation remains united amid reports over its long-term future.

Andy Marinos, chief executive of Sanzaar, last week suggested that the national team tournament could run from October to December, if travel and health restrictions can support an eight-week competition window amid Covid-19.

The 2020 Rugby Championship is currently scheduled for August 8 to September 27. It is due to kick off with a clash between Australia and New Zealand in Melbourne, but the escalating Covid-19 situation in the state of Victoria means there is little chance of this happening.

In a statement today (Thursday), Marinos sought to address “recent media commentary” around the long-term future of Sanzaar, the future structure of its competitions and the rest of the 2020 playing calendar amidst the impact of the global pandemic.

He said: “Having successfully restarted Super Rugby this year in Australia and New Zealand our focus is now on The Rugby Championship (TRC) that is set to be played in one central location. We have determined that New Zealand is currently the favoured option given the Covid stability within the region.

“Critical to this, however, is alignment with the New Zealand government around its requirements for this to take place. Sanzaar is well advanced in option planning with New Zealand Rugby, which in turn, is now seeking New Zealand government approval. It is hoped that details on the TRC will be announced in the near future.”

NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said a six-week event held from early November until mid-December is currently being targeted, with Sanzaar to take on the expense of quarantine measures for the Australia, South Africa and Argentina teams.

“It’s a significant opportunity for the game here, and for the entire country which we’re excited about and eager to begin work with a number of key stakeholders, most notably the government, to see what we can make happen,” Robinson said, according to the Stuff.co.nz website.

“We’re looking to play from early-ish November until early to mid-December, probably across six weeks. The actual format and draws and kick-off times, it’s too early to say with much certainty.”

Sports and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson said the government is open to hosting the Championship. However, he added: “But, of course, we will need to ensure they can be held safely, and we have the appropriate facilities available so that players can isolate and train upon entry to New Zealand.”

Robinson indicated that a profit-sharing model would be explored for its hosting of the tournament. He said: “We’ll work towards a model where everyone who participates has got a benefit. We’re working to win-win situations but the detail hasn’t been worked through.”

With Australia and New Zealand commencing domestic Super Rugby tournaments in recent weeks, the future of the club event has also been debated. Earlier this week, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan said he will offer NZ Rugby a bigger slice of any private equity investment in a revamped Super Rugby, as part of ongoing talks between the unions over the future of the competition.

Recently-appointed RA chairman McLennan is eager to establish a competition with neighbours New Zealand from 2021. The ‘trans-Tasman’ set-up under discussion would cut the extensive travelling commitments of the current Super Rugby tournament by excluding South African and Argentinian teams, and also help relieve the financial burden of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The talks have produced friction between RA and NZ Rugby. McLennan said last week that NZ Rugby was trying to dictate terms in a way that “feels a bit master-servant at the moment”.

In June, Rugby Australia said the Sunwolves would not take part in Australia’s pared-back Super Rugby competition this year, bringing the curtain down on the Tokyo franchise. This season was already set to be the Sunwolves’ last in Super Rugby. Sanzaar last year decided to cut the team, which has failed to gain traction among Japanese fans and sponsors since launch in 2016.

South African and Argentinian franchises have also been unable to return to action, but Marinos said the original Super Rugby vision remains strong. He said: “The Sanzaar Joint Venture is not being dismantled. The member unions remain committed to the long-term future as a joint venture.

“We all recognise the current challenges we face in trying to settle on any potential Super Rugby competition structures moving forward under the pandemic environment, however the restructuring of Super Rugby through reformatted competitions does not mean the dismantling of Sanzaar.

“There is a clear understanding that the value of the Sanzaar alliance and the pathway of Super Rugby to international rugby remains critical to the long-term success, development and competitiveness of the respective national teams. Our record in cross-hemisphere matches and World Cup tournaments are evidence of this.”

Marinos added: “Unfortunately, the pandemic has been particularly tough for our partners in Argentina as the size and length of the ‘lockdown’ has meant they are not able to play in any further revised Super Rugby domestic competition this year.

“That said Sanzaar is continuing to work with the Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) in looking for solutions to give their players some meaningful match preparation as we look ahead to the rest of 2020 with The Rugby Championship. Sanzaar is also assisting South Africa Rugby as it plans a return to play strategy in the weeks ahead.”