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Boks pull out of the Rugby Championship

South African Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.
South African Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.

Rugby fans were put out of their misery when SA Rugby finally announced they will be withdrawing the Springboks from this year’s Rugby Championship.

Their chances of playing were effectively on life support and SA Rugby reluctantly pulled the plug due to ongoing complications related to the Covid-19 pandemic and concerns about seriously jeopardising player welfare.

Government red tape also helped suffocate the Boks’ prospects of going Down Under.

SA Rugby had sought clarification about the team’s travel to Australia from government after ambiguous legislation was promulgated last week. The amended legislation gives permission for South African sportsmen and women who hold contracts abroad‚ not teams who are based locally.

“The South African-based portion of what was a 46-player squad was scheduled to fly from Johannesburg on Sunday. However‚ government regulations as currently drafted meant it was unclear whether the team would legally be able to depart‚” SA Rugby said in a statement.

“With time essentially having run out‚ it left us with no option‚” said Jurie Roux‚ SA Rugby chief executive.

The Springboks were due to play New Zealand‚ Australia and Argentina in the tournament from November 7 to December 12 but the Rugby World Cup holders will have to wait for next year’s tour of the British and Irish Lions before they play again.

SA Rugby will also suffer financial shortfalls as a result of the Boks’ withdrawal.

In the end‚ though‚ the logistics around putting together an enlarged touring squad with players based in different countries under different restrictions became a nightmare.

Roux said that the local challenges were compounded by the fact that the 24 overseas-based players‚ who had been identified for potential selection (depending on Covid-19 status) and for whom visas had been applied‚ were based with European or Japanese clubs.

“Players in England‚ Ireland‚ France and Japan are subject to differing local regulations and travel protocols and potentially imminent renewed lockdowns in some territories‚” he said.

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

“We understand that public safety concerns come first and there’s no way that we could expect shortcuts to be found to get them out of their host countries and into the Springbok bubble.

“But the impact on our planning was profound and took us to a bottom line that we could not in fairness commit to being able to compete.”

SA Rugby added that mounting concerns related to player welfare‚ were a major concern.

“This is a hugely disappointing outcome for our supporters and commercial partners but the ongoing impacts of the pandemic in multiple dispensations means we are unable to deliver a Springbok team without seriously compromising player welfare‚” said Roux.

“Sanzaar and Rugby Australia have bent over backwards to make the tournament happen and it would have been unfair on them‚ their partners and state government to delay a decision any longer.”

SA Rugby consulted with MyPlayers – the players’ representative body – who supported the decision.

Rassie Erasmus‚ director of rugby‚ said that his department had planned for every scenario. “We worked out that the players needed a minimum of 400 minutes of game time before they could be ready for a Test match‚” said Erasmus.

“The overseas-based players had started playing before us and they would have been getting close to that time by 7 November.

“But many of those have completed their programmes or have had Covid outbreaks which has interrupted the planning. The Japanese-based players haven’t played any rugby at all‚ while the home-based players would be well short of 400 minutes by the time of kick off.”

Roux said it has been an extremely challenging year. “What started out as a two-week lockdown evolved into a global crisis‚ one of whose side effects has been to decimate our rugby calendar.

“It seems impossible that the Springboks won’t play a Test match in 2020‚ but public health and safety have been the primary concern and we have been collateral damage like so many businesses.

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