Rugby Australia, NZR relationship at its 'lowest ebb': McLennan

International
by Christy Doran

On the eve of the opening Bledisloe Cup Test of the year, Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan says relations with New Zealand Rugby are at its "lowest ebb" and has called for "respect" to be shown between the two proud rugby nations.

The newly appointed chairman's comments come as All Blacks coach Ian Foster continued to push New Zealand's campaign for The Rugby Championship schedule to change.

Relations between the two nations were already on a knife's edge after New Zealand Rugby asked Rugby Australia for an expression of interest to join their next Super Rugby competition.

It came after New Zealand Rugby's report found that as few as two Australian teams would best serve the three-time world champions.

Tensions reached boiling point when SANZAAR - having previously proposed New Zealand as the preferred candidate to host the southern hemisphere annual tournament - awarded The Rugby Championship to Australia earlier this month.

They did so on the basis that Australia, together with the New South Wales and Queensland Governments, could allow Argentina and South Africa the best possible preparation for the tournament and allow for crowds to attend.

But the straw that broke the camel's back occurred last Thursday, when SANZAAR pushed ahead with a six-week competition, which leaves the All Blacks at risk of not being home for Christmas given New Zealand's strict quarantine restrictions.

New Zealand Rugby issued a strongly worded statement shortly after the SANZAAR announcement, condemning the schedule and stated that they were left disappointed and did not agree to the schedule.

NZR is pointing the finger at RA yet when the shoe was on the other foot – and it was the Wallabies who were set to spend Christmas in quarantine – NZR would not agree to a five-week tournament.

"On numerous occasions, for the record, going back to August 27, we at RA said we would be prepared to entertain a five-week competition but that was knocked on the head by New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina," McLennan told New Zealand's Rugby Breakdown.

After Australia was awarded the TRC, New Zealand Rugby requested that the competition become a five-week tournament.

Australia agreed, believing they would be hypocritical not to, but Argentina and South Africa - who have both struggled to play any competitive rugby since COVID-19 brought an end to the regular Super Rugby season - rejected the request, leaving the six-week competition to run as per usual.

"I've seen board minutes from September 17 where the six-week competition was signed off.

"There's a lot of he said, she said. It's a bit messy, I have to say."

One solution could be if, as reported in recent days, a trans-Tasman bubble in set-up between New Zealand and New South Wales, which could allow for the All Blacks to skip the quarantine period back home. 

"I'd be really concerned about a boycott. I think it would be a tragedy for the TRC and the game," McLennan said.

"It's 10 weeks away. The restrictions are unwinding a little bit here. The NSW government has done a great job with contact tracing and we've had two days in a row where we've had no new cases.

"I think we all just need to take a deep breath and stand back a little bit."

Asked by Highlanders champion Joe Wheeler whether the trans-Tasman neighbours even liked each other, McLennan didn't mince his words.

"There is respect there but the relationship is at probably the lowest ebb it's ever been at," he said.

"But I'm trying my hardest to fix that over time."

McLennan said respect between the two nations was vital to see them get back on track.

"I think the fundamental issue from us is that you've got to respect our position," McLennan added.

"We know we haven't been as good as we should have been and there are some systemic issues that we're dealing with within Australian rugby from grassroots right through to our high performance area, but if you look at the combined history of both countries on and off the field we're very close partners, brothers and sisters, so I would say respect what we have to do.

"Over the long-term, if we can afford to get five teams into a 10 or 12 team (trans-Tasman) competition we will deliver for you guys, but it just takes time...

"I'm faced with the decision of cutting two or three teams out of our competition and we took great offence to the way that was handled and the way we were instructed how the competition was going to come together, and I don't think that was either fair or the right way to handle it.

"But we're prepared to accept that that's all water under the bridge, but we've got to get focused on building a new competition for next year and beyond."

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McLennan reiterated his desire for a trans-Tasman competition and backed the Wallabies to get back to the top after getting their ducks in order.

"In terms of competition structures for next year, I'd like a trans-Tasman competition," he said.

"I think COVID's throwing up a whole lot of issues, I'm not sure where that's going to land but, ultimately, we've got a really powerful ANZAC block that we should be leveraging, working together. I think we're better players when we play against you guys and we'll only get better over time - we've got a good crop of young guys coming through, so I think the competition will improve.

"We've got to work together to see how we leverage our strength on the global stage.

"Money's tough at the moment and that's why we've got to get the TRC away.

"We're just going to battle our way through it, so I'm confident that Australian rugby's coming back - we've got our challenges but we're not going to take it lying down."