New Zealand have pulled out of the scheduled third Bledisoe Cup match in Perth, as SANZAAR scrambles to finalise the draw for the Rugby Championship that could see the back half of the tournament either be played in Queensland or be rerouted to the United Kingdom and Europe.
The All Blacks and Wallabies were due to face each other in Perth on Saturday week with Optus Stadium nearing a sellout attendance, but New Zealand Rugby [NZR] on Friday announced it had delayed the departure of the All Blacks for the time being, and Rugby Australia confirming via a statement that they would "work through alternative dates for the Bledisloe Cup in Perth".
NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said he wasn't prepared to send the All Blacks to Perth given the uncertainty in the Rugby Championship schedule beyond this weekend.
"My understanding is we would have to fly on Saturday night and be in a soft quarantine, and at the end of seven days we would be able to play the match. So that's effectively why the timeline around needing to get out on Saturday night was so challenging because we simply don't know what the rest of the schedule looks like at this stage."
Robinson also confirmed there was now no chance the Tests against the Springboks could be played on home soil, adding to the complicated picture as SANZAAR continues to negotiate with the various Australian state governments and their border policies to get the tournament's future secured. The Black Ferns' series against the Wallaroos has also been cancelled.
"Once the team leaves our shores, they currently can't return until November 23 post their northern tour, so given the uncertainty, it makes sense to pause and get more clarity on these fixtures," Robinson said earlier Friday via a media release
"We remain 100% committed to playing in the entire Rugby Championship in 2021 and are working closely with SANZAAR to look at a range of options to reschedule these important matches."
The NZR announcement appeared to take Rugby Australia [RA] by surprise however with chief executive Andy Marinos saying: "It's incredibly disappointing to be informed of this decision via the media, despite having a conversation with the CEO moments before and there was no mention that this was the intention.
"Despite this outcome, I am confident we will find a solution for the whole Rugby Championship in what continues to be a very challenging environment in which to work.
"We have been engaging in positive discussions with both teams as well as Government partners and were confident we were close to finding a solution."
SANZAAR echoed Rugby Australia's frustrations at New Zealand Rugby's decision, but said it would continue to work to find a resolution to see the Rugby Championship played in its entirety.
"SANZAAR is very disappointed that the New Zealand Rugby Union has made the decision not to travel to Perth at this time to play Australia for its second-round match [and Third Bledisloe match]," a statement read.
"However, SANZAAR and the other national unions will continue to work on when and where this match can be played as part of the overall rescheduling work being done. SANZAAR also recognises that this decision is incredibly disappointing for rugby fans in Perth."
Told of the disappointment from across the ditch, Robinson said he could understand the frustrations of RA given the Test in Perth was approaching a full house.
"We can understand the frustration and disappointment of Rugby Australia given the fact that we were unable to travel tomorrow night, and we have a huge amount of sympathy for them and the impact that this has on the match in Perth for next weekend.
"As I said at the outset, we are absolutely committed to playing that game at some stage and we'll work as hard as we possibly can to make that happen with them.
"Getting into a whole lot of speculation around who said what and when doesn't really matter at the moment, does it? It doesn't really help anything and it doesn't help us go forward. And what we're focused right at the moment is trying to find a solution to a situation that balances our need to look after our people with our commitment to make this tournament want to go ahead."
The Springboks and Pumas play the second of their Rugby Championship Tests in South Africa on Saturday, the only match in the tournament this weekend.
Meanwhile in the background, plans are being drawn up to potentially relocate the closing four weeks off the tournament -- which sees the Wallabies and All Blacks face each of the Pumas and Springboks on two occasions -- to the northern hemisphere.
The contingency plans have been forced due to the worsening COVID situation in NSW, the resulting strict border protocols in Western Australia, and the recent outbreak in New Zealand which has completely closed quarantine-free travel between the two nations. New Zealanders had until earlier this week been permitted to fly into Western Australia without having to serve 14 days' quarantine.
As a result, SANZAAR has been working with the Australian Government and Queensland Government to shift Rounds 3 to 6 of the tournament to the Sunshine State. But that has created issues for Argentina and South Africa who were due to complete their quarantine in Sydney, where they would have been allowed to train in a similar fashion to France earlier this year, before flying north to Queensland.
The deteriorating situation in NSW however has shifted thinking at Queensland Government level while the state has also already allowed the entire NRL season to be played out north of the border, which could create scheduling difficulties with the state's stadiums as it is.
ESPN was made aware of the plan to take the tournament north on Thursday, while a RugbyPass.com report later suggested each of Paris, London, Dublin and Cardiff had been outlined as potential hosting venues.
While Queensland remains the favoured destination for the Rugby Championship, there are several key factors that make a shift to the northern hemisphere attractive.
The first is that stadiums can welcome capacity or near-capacity crowds. The back-to-back All Blacks-Springboks Tests, which pits the world champions against the only team to beat them in Japan, would likely generate huge attendances for countries that have otherwise been starved of Test rugby over the past 18 months.
It would also create a situation where the All Blacks would only have to serve one period of hotel quarantine, rather than the two separate stays they may have faced had they returned to New Zealand in between a Rugby Championship held in Australia and the start of their spring tour.
ESPN has been told that should the tournament be moved north, the kick-off timings could be shifted to better align with the timezones in both Australia and New Zealand; that could mean either bringing match start times forward to the middle of the day, or delaying kick-offs to later in the evening, depending on where the Tests are hosted.
Whatever the case, each of the SANZAAR nations and the governing body itself remain desperate for the tournament to proceed given the huge financial incentives associated with its successful operation.
It is likely that the option that presents the most financially lucrative result will be green-lit, pending the various quarantine and border restrictions necessary for it to proceed safely.
SANZAAR is reportedly hopeful of confirming the schedule later on Friday, though the breadth of negotiations and diverse range of stakeholders could force talks into the weekend or even early next week.