Matt Williams: To stop rugby going south, teams could simply go south

Australia and New Zealand are perfectly placed to help the rugby phoenix rise again

In the space of a couple of months, rugby’s business model of the last 20 years has been destroyed. Burned in the all-consuming flames of the Covid-19 wildfire.

The newly re-elected chairman of World Rugby, Bill Beaumont, and his organisation have the gargantuan task of raising a rugby phoenix from these ashes.

This week’s release of World Rugby’s document outlining a way back for the sport from coronavirus gave the rugby world the reality check it needed.

In a rapidly changing landscape, the document tells us that until a vaccine for Covid-19 is created, it will be almost impossible to fly to another country, stay for 48 hours, play a game in a packed stadium and then fly home.


“Fly in, fly out” rugby is at best suspended, at worst a piece of history.

The tough reality is that without a vaccine, there may be no Pro14, Heineken Cup or Six Nations. Despite positive public statements, a leading French club official told me that the Top14 is in grave danger of being postponed indefinitely. These are all devastating prospects for Irish and European rugby.

Australia and New Zealand are now quickly emerging from isolation into a far safer environment than Europe

The one rugby-playing area of the world that has managed coronavirus exceptionally well is Australia and New Zealand. At the time of writing Australia have sadly lost 97 citizens to Covid-19 and New Zealand has had 21 deaths.

You don't need to be Albert Einstein to understand that compared to the Six Nations countries, whose combined death toll is over 85,000, the Australian and New Zealand governments have managed this pandemic significantly better their European counterparts.

Australia and New Zealand are now quickly emerging from isolation into a far safer environment than Europe.

The Australian and New Zealand governments are considering opening a “trans-Tasman Covid-safe travel zone” between the two rugby-playing cousins for trade, tourism and sport.

Last Tuesday, after a joint meeting with the Australian cabinet, the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, confirmed that the plans for a "safety bubble" are advancing and that trans-Tasman travel will recommence in the near future.

With New Zealand’s professional rugby players returning to training as early as next week, it is highly probable that Australia and New Zealand will be playing internal provincial matches in June and Bledisloe Cup matches as early as August.

Hygiene protocols

In another boost to contact sports, under very strict hygiene protocols, the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) players were permitted to return to training this week and plan to recommence their competition on May 28th.

There are even suggestions that a limited number of local spectators could attend matches

Agile thinking in English soccer has realised an opportunity and is already a step ahead of rugby.

There is a proposal that Premier League teams fly to Australia to play out the conclusion of the league. All travellers would be tested for coronavirus before boarding chartered flights. Every team would then enter 14 days of isolation and train at one of Australia's many world-class training venues, before playing matches in Australian stadiums.

This is the exact process the New Zealand Warriors rugby league team has done this week to play in the NRL.

Logistically, it would seem impossible to host 20 Premier League teams in Australia, but, combined with New Zealand, all Tier One national rugby teams could. Playing provincial and international matches on extended tours to the south is part of rugby’s heritage.

Australian federal and state governments have given cautious support to the concept of English football in Australia because of the obvious economic benefits to their ravaged economy.

There are even suggestions that a limited number of local spectators could attend matches while practicing social distancing in the vast stadiums.

Australia and New Zealand have the experience of hosting multiple World Cups. And they have quality stadiums and training facilities.

Paradigm shift

Now is the time to break the self-defeating model of looking at rugby through the lens of “north against south”. A paradigm shift towards mutual help in creating a safe zone for matches between Tier One teams will benefit everyone in this drastic time.

It will be possible for Six Nations teams to travel to a safe haven in the south, self isolate, train, play provincial teams such as the Waratahs, then play the Wallabies and New Zealand.

And, heaven forbid, the Six Nations could even play each other in the south. There are massive expatriate communities that would support the games.

New concepts in rugby are resisted more vigorously than being forced to wear a face mask while drinking a pint

Of course, a project of this size in these horrific times will not be easy. The players would have to commit to a minimum of touring for eight weeks.

The time frame would not be until September, with TV rights, costs, profit-sharing and the major issue of community and player safety to be thrashed out, but right now our administrators have time on their hands to tackle these issues.

New concepts in rugby are resisted more vigorously than being forced to wear a face mask while drinking a pint, but, with the support of the Australian and New Zealand governments, who are motivated by the need to stimulate their ravaged economies, these games can happen.

Ireland should not give up hope of touring Australia later this year.

Instead of just handing national unions loans that may never be repaid, World Rugby could invest in a creative short-term playing programme that would place rugby at the apex of the global sporting stage and provide an antidote to its coronavirus-induced financial pandemic.

The phoenix may yet be able to rise.