England and Wales plan to finalise fixtures for an emergency Four Nations tournament this autumn in response to rugby’s worsening global crisis.
Moves to confine the event to English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish unions are being made amid growing fears that the health pandemic will wreak further havoc by wiping out the entire southern hemisphere tours scheduled for November.
That threatens to raise the total number of major Test matches postponed or cancelled because of the coronavirus to almost 40 – four from the last fortnight of the Six Nations, 15 due to have been played south of the Equator from next month and 19 more in the autumn.
New Zealand, whose borders will remain closed ‘for a long time’ according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, are resigned to losing an out-of-window Test in Japan worth seven figures as well as their matches in England, Scotland and Wales.
Brent Impey, chairman of the NZRFU board, underlined the grim reality. “The game is in crisis and survival mode,’’ he said from Auckland. “Here as much as anywhere else.’’
They hope to fill the void by playing a four-match Bledisloe Cup series against Australia, whose very own survival has been eased, albeit temporarily, by a low-interest emerg- ency relief loan from World Rugby of around £7m.
New Zealand government policy is likely to eliminate long-distance travel until next year.
Travel and quarantine issues are understood to be behind the Home Unions’ leaving France and Italy out of the equation in their contingency plan for November. The last round of Six Nations matches from March are penciled in for October 31 but no date has been fixed for England’s match in Rome.
Instead of the All Blacks at Twickenham on November 7, the World Cup finalists could be playing Ireland. Scotland face the prospect of two trips to Cardiff in rapid succession, for the match postponed from March 14, then back again a fortnight or so later.
Despite two days of talks, World Rugby have failed to reach agreement on a global season despite the Six Nations’ readiness to push the finish of the event back a month until April.
They were willing to make that concession to help the Rugby Championship stage their international competition at the same time, thereby reducing interference with the club season.
While one source admitted that the talks had stalled, another blamed the failure on the southern hemisphere big four failing to agree among themselves. New Zealanders had been critical of Sir Bill Beaumont before his re-election as chairman over what they saw as Six Nations’ intransigence.
“We have put him on notice that we expect change,’’ Impey told Sky NZ. “He’s made the right noises but now he’s got to deliver. It will certainly test the relevance of World Rugby if nothing happens.
“We cannot afford to wait. Now is the time for action to get a global season underway and make sure Test matches are meaningful. We cannot muck around. This has got to happen now.
“We are not beholden to the northern hemisphere. Everything is going to change. Post-COVID-19 it will be totally different. Are England going to be able to sustain 12 clubs? Are those owners going to continue to lose packets and packets of money?’’
Rugby may be restarting in New Zealand next month but the Welsh regions and Irish provinces will have to wait until August at the earliest. Ireland plan to revive their Inter-Provincial championship but Wales must wait until August 22 before beginning a series of local derbies.