Rugby Australia on borrowed time for 2021 plans, broadcast deal

Still without a broadcast deal for 2021 and beyond, Rugby Australia [RA] is fast running out of time to formulate competition plans for next season and present its offering to any interested parties.

The organisation overcame one major hurdle amid the coronavirus pandemic when its Super Rugby AU competition kicked off without an issue over the weekend, the Reds and Brumbies coming away with wins over the Waratahs and Rebels respectively.

While there are some logistical issues still to be sorted for the competition - specifically when the Rebels might be able to return home later in the tournament - Rugby Australia will now shift its focus to sorting a schedule for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship, but also more importantly just what shape the rugby season could take in 2021.

Major stakeholders on either side of the Tasman appear united in their push for a trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition, while even fan interest looks to have shifted slightly in New Zealand, after originally indicating Super Rugby Aotearoa was favoured as a permanent fixture.

"I don't know about the confidence about getting it done, I know that there are multiple stakeholders that see the opportunity to play in a [trans-Tasman] competition like that would be ideal," Ben Whitaker, RA's head of professional rugby services, told ESPN.

"And we support that. It doesn't mean that we've just concentrated on that model, we have to have some different options at play; but we're very keen to see that competition modelled in detail, which we've done. Hopefully New Zealand's doing the same and we can come together very quickly to decide where that sits.

"We've got some really good conversations going with our players, our Super teams, CEOs, etcetera, and they all concur that that is a prioritised model that they would like to go down the path of. So we know time's of the essence, too, right? We know we need to have some things locked in pretty soon, through the months of July, August."

Settling on a competition format for 2021 is of the utmost importance not just for the need to give all parties some clarity around what the future holds, but more-so that RA can present their plans to broadcasters and set about securing the game's financial future.

RA has so far managed to avoid insolvency through a series of cost-saving measures and last week signed off on an updated pay deal with the Rugby Union Players Association through to the end of Super Rugby AU; the door remaining open for match payments and other extensions that may be necessary if or when Test rugby is played.

Whitaker said that while there was no agreed deadline, there was a collective understanding that the entire process needed to be expedited over the next couple of months.

"I don't think anyone has set any hard cut-off dates but you can imagine if things don't become certain by that point a whole lot of things become difficult," he told ESPN. "Running the comp, one, but then also all the commercial arrangements around that, including broadcast, which is for us a real key element.

"So we need time to get that all locked...now that we know that we [kicked off] with 2020, a lot of attention is going into 2021 right now."

Meanwhile, there continues to be mixed reports of just how likely it is that a Rugby Championship will be played in some form later this year. With South Africa and Argentina still under strict lockdown conditions, the two countries are trailing both New Zealand and Australia in getting their players back on the field.

SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos told stuff.co.nz he was confident the tournament would go ahead this year, while recent reports have suggested that a competition "hub" was more likely to be set up in New Zealand rather than Australia given New Zealand's ability to host crowds with no restrictions.

"We remain very positive about that," Marinos told Stuff. "Obviously the biggest elephant, or anomaly, in the room is what sort of restrictions that could come in. So we always have to be guarded by governments and health authorities around that.

"But we are certainly very positive as a group to deliver a Rugby Championship this year in whichever market we can, where we can get all the teams in and get the competition underway."

A four-Test Bledisloe Cup series appears a more likely proposition, particularly after New Zealand broadcaster Sky Sport inadvertently released the proposed dates. While RA cast doubt on the Oct. 10 and 17, and Nov. 1 and 8, dates, an early- or mid-October start certainly appears to be the most likely kick-off for the annual trans-Tasman showdown.

"It's all being modelled now, it then comes down to understanding the restrictions that we'll operate under," Whitaker said. "So clearly we've set the timeline that Tests won't be played until October onwards.

"But you can imagine we're going to try and utilise that whole period there, certainly October-November, to get Bledisloe [games] and TRC done. And it will just be now about fine-tuning dates and also how international teams can travel between nations."