Europe perfect destination to bring Rugby Championship back into spotlight
Yesterday, RugbyPass broke the news that Sanzaar are seriously considering relocating The Rugby Championship to Europe on the back of Covid flare-ups in New Zealand and Australia – and it’s a move that makes perfect sense.
It’s been three years since the Southern Hemisphere’s premier international rugby competition was staged in its full glory.
In 2019, a compressed tournament was played out to accommodate for the World Cup while last year, South Africa withdrew from the competition and all six matches of the Tri-Nations were played in Australia.
Already, the integrity of the 2021 competition is on shaky ground. The Pumas won’t play a match in Argentina, the Springboks’ two home matches will bring in zero stadium-goers while until earlier this week, the rest of the matches were set to take place in under-optimised, under-attended Australian stadiums, bar one game played in front of a half-packed crowd in Auckland.
The latest developments in New Zealand, where the population is currently set to be locked down for seven days, has forced Australia to re-think their one-way travel bubble with NZ, which means the All Blacks won’t travel to Western Australia for their next Bledisloe Cup match, originally scheduled to take place at Optus Stadium on September 28.
Unless the Australia Government were to make an allowance for the All Blacks, that match in Perth wouldn’t have been able to go ahead as planned – and now it’s been indefinitely called off.
One mooted alternative would see the remainder of the Rugby Championship shifted to Queensland – but the NRL has currently commandeered the major stadiums in the Sunshine State, which would force some of the best matches in the rugby union calendar to be played in front of paltry mobs in smaller arenas.
That includes the 100th game between the All Blacks and Springboks – an historic match more than deserving of a sold-out, passionate crowd.
That won’t happen in the doldrums of Australia. But it could in Europe.
Twickenham, Stade de France and the Principality Stadium all loom as perfect venues for the match that could be the most important on the test calendar, the battle that will see the current World Cup holders and successful hosts of the most recent Lions tour clash against the only team that’s had the wood over them in the past decade.
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And then there’s the nine other huge encounters between the Southern Hemisphere’s top sides to add to the agenda – games that would otherwise be forgotten about in the annuals of time, but which could become unforgettable if staged on the other side of the world.
Some have raised concerns that the games will be played at times unsuitable to an Australasian audience but with the bulk of Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby’s income for the year expected to come through their broadcast deals, it’s hard to envisage the games won’t be played at Southern Hemisphere-appropriate hours.
And with hundreds of thousands of Antipodeans, South Africans and Argentinians living in the UK and Ireland, there’ll be a massive fanbase interested in getting along to watch their home-sides play – but they may struggle to get tickets with the native populations also clamouring for some high-intensity, high-paced rugby.
While the British and Irish Lions series with the Springboks was a closely fought affair, it wasn’t the enthralling calendar event that many were hoping for – but a Euro-based Rugby Championship would have something for everyone.
It also ensures relative parity going into matches.
By the end of the weekend, Argentina will have played two matches in South Africa – where they’ve won just once before. The Wallabies, meanwhile, have had to play their opening two Bledisloe Cup matches (only one of which was a Rugby Championship game) at Eden Park, a ground where they’ve not tasted success since 1986.
In Europe, however, there’s no home advantage. Everyone is on an equal playing field.
In 2015, the four Rugby Championship sides contested the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup and the world was treated to rugby of the highest order.
It was competitive, it was high-paced and it was a great advertisement for the game of rugby – and a Europe-based Rugby Championship promises similar potential.
There still remains a chance that Queensland or even South Africa could play host to the competition but from most conceivable angles, the UK and France appeal as the location with the greatest upside.
With all four Sanzaar unions poised to take a financial hit this year, packed-out stadiums in Europe will hold endless appeal – as will the promotional aspect of actually showcasing high quality rugby in front of roaring crowds.
It might be a left-field solution to the impact the global pandemic is having on the game, but that’s exactly what rugby needs right now.
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