The three-match Bledisloe Cup has been thrown into uncertainty with the shutdown of the trans-Tasman travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday announced an eight-week pause on the travel bubble as New South Wales struggles to manage a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney. Victoria is also battling a smaller outbreak, though a statewide lockdown appears to have slowed the spread of the devastating coronavirus.
"Covid has changed, so we must," Ardern said in announcing the pause.
The first Test of the Bledisloe Cup series was due to be played at Eden Park on Aug. 7, with the Wallabies originally planning to travel to Auckland next week after regrouping on the Gold Coast on Sunday and preparing for a week in Australia.
"We know the uncertainty this creates is challenging for our fans, players and partners, but remain committed to finding a path forward and continuing to deliver world-class rugby in 2021," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said later Friday.
"We are continuing to work closely with the New Zealand Government to explore the option of bringing Australia across the Tasman for the two Bledisloe Cup Tests.
"As we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic our decisions will continue be guided by the advice of relevant Government and health authorities with the health and safety of our people at the forefront of any decisions. It's important we evaluate all of our options before finalising any plans," Robinson said.
Australia could travel across the ditch sooner than their original plan to keep the series alive, pending exemptions from the New Zealand Government; the bulk of the Wallabies squad has remained in Queensland following the 2-1 series win over France, although Brumbies players were permitted to return to Canberra earlier this week.
Given Queensland has only had a small number of recent cases, it may be that Rugby Australia [RA] is granted an exemption for the Wallabies to travel to New Zealand and avoid hotel quarantine ahead of the first Test.
The Wallabies may be able to travel to New Zealand through the same process as returning New Zealanders, who have been granted seven days to travel home. A negative test for COVID-19 is a requirement of travel.
"If there are significant economic issues that are brought up by the closure in that seven-day window that can be resolved than we have a delegated minister to work through any of those issues," Ardern said.
"However, it must be in the seven-day window, we are not making exceptions outside of that. Everyone else has to go into quarantine."
RA boss Andy Marinos said he was hopeful a positive outcome for the series could be reached in the coming days as discussions with both NZR and both the Australian and New Zealand Federal Governments continued.
"We are working closely with New Zealand Rugby and the various Governments through different scenarios now," Marinos said. "Rugby Australia's position has always been to prioritise the health and safety of its players, staff and fans, and today's announcement only reinforces that. We want to thank the Australian Government as well as the New Zealand Government for their support so far, as we aim for a positive outcome in the coming days.
"The Wallabies team have been in a secure bubble since the conclusion of the France Series, with the squad assembled on the Gold Coast. The players are regularly PCR tested and have maintained strict bio-security protocols as recommended by the Return To Play Committee and the relevant health authorities," Marinos said.
If the first Test does proceed as planned, there is also then the issue of the second Test in Perth a fortnight later and the series finale back in Wellington on Aug. 28.
The West Australian Government has operated the tightest border controls of any Australian state during the pandemic, but it had kept its own quarantine-free travel with New Zealand open before Ardern's announcement on Friday, creating a situation where charter flights may be workable to see the Bledisloe series proceed as planned.
RA and its New Zealand Rugby counterparts were able to find a solution to contest a four-match Bledisloe series in 2020 amid border closures created by the pandemic, before the Tri Nations was played entirely in Australia following South Africa's withdrawal from the Rugby Championship.
But the Springboks had confirmed their involvement in this year's tournament, which had been restored to Rugby Championship status, although the world champions will this weekend commence what is expected to be a hugely physical three-Test series with the British & Irish Lions in South Africa.
The Rugby Championship is run by SANZAAR, with the tournament stewards in June confirming both the Pumas and Springboks would be based out of Australia and New Zealand after facing each other twice in the Republic to start the Championship.
That, too, is also now up in the air.
"The Rugby Championship is scheduled to be played primarily in New Zealand and Australia over the next two months, with the first two matches to be played in South Africa between the Springboks and Pumas," SANZAAR chief Brendan Morris said. "Following these opening two matches, both teams then travel to Australia and New Zealand for the remainder of the tournament.
"SANZAAR and its member unions - Rugby Australia, New Zealand Rugby, South Africa Rugby and Argentina Rugby Union - will now work with the respective governments and health authorities in Australia and New Zealand, as we have successfully done recently with Super Rugby, to find the best solutions for the tournament given this latest development."