Australia, New Zealand resume stalled Rugby Championship

(AP) — The Wallabies host the All Blacks in a rare Sunday afternoon match at the international level. Turns out that’s not the only unusual occurrence in a Rugby Championship compressed from four countries into one Australian state — at least from next week.

COVID-19 restrictions first postponed Sunday’s finale of the Bledisloe Cup at Perth from late August when the All Blacks were unable to travel to the Western Australian capital due to a lockdown in New Zealand. They’d already clinched the annual series between the trans-Tasman rivals for the 19th straight year with wins over two weekends at Auckland’s Eden Park.

Since then organizing body SANZAAR decided to move all the matches and teams to Queensland state due to a variety of COVID-19 restrictions across the time zones and even between states in Australia. Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are all staying at a resort on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane.

The teams will play four doubleheaders over four weekends ending on Oct. 2. The first of those will be held Sept. 12 — another Sunday — when New Zealand plays Argentina followed by Australia vs. South Africa. It will be the Pumas and world champion Springboks’ first game action since Aug. 22 when Argentina evened a two-match series in South Africa with a 29-10 win.

The changes this year are similar to last year’s Rugby Championship, when South Africa withdrew from the tournament and it was played entirely in Australia. Organizers had hoped the 2021 version would be different.

“We thought last year was tough when we had to implement a Tri-Nations tournament in Australia with South Africa absent due to the pandemic, but the current disruption caused by the ‘delta variant’ of COVID-19 has seen government authorities tighten up border bio-security measures substantially,” SANZAAR chief executive Brendan Morris said on Aug. 24 when the decision was made to move the remainder of the tournament to Queensland.

On Sunday at Perth, All Black Beauden Barrett will return to the No. 10 jersey in which he twice was voted the world’s best player. Barrett has played only sporadically at flyhalf for the All Blacks over the past two years, since Richie Mo’unga succeeded him in the starting role. Most of his recent test appearances have been at fullback or from the bench.

For the Wallabies, Samu Kerevi and Izack Rodda will make their long-awaited returns. Kerevi comes into the side at inside center for Hunter Paisami, who will miss the game due to the birth of his child. It will mark Kerevi’s first appearance since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, having spent the past two years in Japan playing for Suntory.

Rodda will come off the bench in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in front of his new home crowd after signing with the Perth-based Western Force for the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season.

New Zealand will be looking to complete a 3-0 clean-sweep of the Bledisloe series.

“We are ready and the team is really determined to finish off this block of tests against Australia with a top performance,” head coach Ian Foster said. “We’ve had a really unique situation going into this test with quarantine back in New Zealand and a ‘soft’ quarantine here in Perth. But the work that has gone in preparing the players has been outstanding.”