CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The South African rugby body says it has “noted” media reports that the Springboks will withdraw from the Rugby Championship and has made no move to deny it, with an official announcement expected on Friday.
The world champions' place in the four-nation tournament was in question because of uncertainty over government restrictions on international travel and, more importantly, a lack of game time for them due to the coronavirus pandemic. That put their welfare at risk if they were rushed into playing test rugby.
SA Rugby would not comment on the reports, it said on Thursday, until Rugby Championship organizer SANZAAR “had updated all stakeholders through official channels.” That was expected to happen on Friday.
South Africa's withdrawal would throw the Rugby Championship into more disarray.
The tournament had already been delayed three months to November and December because of the pandemic. It was originally expected to be hosted in New Zealand but was moved to Australia because of lighter quarantine rules. New Zealand then refused to accept playing in the last round in December because its players would still be in quarantine on Christmas Day on their return home. SANZAAR adjusted the schedule again to accommodate the All Blacks.
South Africa's domestic rugby teams returned to action only late last month, much later than their rivals in New Zealand and Australia. While New Zealand and Australia have completed their Super Rugby spinoffs and met in a Bledisloe Cup test, most of the Springboks have played just three competitive games since March, when the country went into a strict virus lockdown. Many of the players, including captain Siya Kolisi, have played less.
Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who coached the team to Rugby World Cup victory in Japan last year, said his players would need around 500 minutes of game time “to be safe.”
They have had barely half that, and would realistically have to leave for Australia by this weekend to meet the 14-day quarantine requirements and have enough time to prepare for their first game of the championship on Nov. 7 against Argentina. Erasmus wanted the Springboks to begin training together by last weekend but they still haven’t gone into camp.
The Springboks were allowed to return to full-contact training only last month because of government regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus. At one point, South Africa had the fifth highest virus caseload in the world and has nearly 700,000 confirmed cases.
“We have had one of the toughest lockdowns in the world and our players were indoors for months,” Erasmus said last month. “In other countries, players could train or at least go to the park to exercise. We did not have that.
“So, if you look at the science, we have to get five or six matches into the players for their own welfare and to make it safe for them (to play in the Rugby Championship)."
There are also questions over Argentina's readiness for the tournament because of a similar lack of game time. However, the Pumas are already in Australia and say they will play.
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