Rugby Championship: New Zealand loses tournament, after SANZAAR change of heart

New Zealand has had the Rugby Championship seemingly snatched from its grasp, with SANZAAR confirming the four-nation tournament will now take place in Australia.

Two months ago, the annual tournament - usually contested on a home-and-away format - seemed destined for this side of the Tasman, with New Zealand at COVID-19 Alert Level 1 and no positive cases for 100 days.

At the time, Australia was battening down the hatches against a second coronavirus wave that put Victoria in full lockdown.

New Zealand received endorsement from SANZAAR and World Rugby to stage the southern hemisphere tournament, but on Friday afternoon, saw that support slip away, as Australia secured hosting rights.

"We're obviously disappointed at the decision to not have New Zealand host the tournament, but we understand and accept it," says NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

"Now that the decision has been made, we're looking forward to seeing the All Blacks again take on the best of the southern hemisphere."

Instead, New Zealand will host two Bledisloe Cup tests against the Wallabies, before the Rugby Championship begins.

"We worked incredibly hard behind the scenes with a whole range of stakeholders, including SANZAAR and the New Zealand Government, to ensure we were ready and able to host the Championship, and we felt we were," says Robinson.

As news of the Aussie coup leaked on Friday, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denied her Government had dropped the ball over preparations for the event.

With the country now at Level 2 and health officials still trying to identify the source of the latest outbreak, border and quarantine restrictions always loomed as obstacles to hosting overseas teams.

"We put lots of effort into that, worked hard to accommodate the needs of the players and even created a regime where they could be training within three days of arrival," says Ardern.

"If we're not successful, I'd say it would result in getting caught up in SANZAAR politics."

While New Zealand and Australia have been relatively successful in combatting the spread of the pandemic, their rugby rivals have struggled, with South Africa (640,000) and Argentina (520,000) ranking among the top 10 countries in terms of coronavirus cases reported.

In recent days, 13 Pumas players - along with head coach Mario Ledesma - have tested positive for COVID-19.

In allocating the tournament to Australia, SANZAAR admits South Africa's participation is far from certain, with domestic play currently suspended. 

"The Springboks' participation will be dependent on the relaxation of that suspension, as well as overcoming a number of other logistical challenges, including the opening of international air borders," says chief executive Andy Marinos.

"South Africa is only expected to return to to competitive play next month, leaving a relatively short time to prepare."

The Springboks took out last year's championship, before claiming the Rugby World Cup crown in Japan.