Rugby Australia (RA) chairman Hamish McLennan continues to push the nation’s credibility of staging events during the coronavirus pandemic, raising the prospect that the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa could instead be contested Down Under.
Having already flagged a potential mini World Cup in Australia, McLennan says RA would be ready and willing to step in to host this year’s biggest rugby event as South Africa, the United Kingdom and Ireland all continue to be ravaged by COVID-19.
Australia, meanwhile, continues to have near-zero cases of community transmission.
“Absolutely, we’re open to anyone,” McLennan told ESPN when asked if RA was ready to be the saviour of Test rugby in 2021.
“Member unions around the world are quite envious of what [2020 Tri Nations] we were able to pull off. And for most top-tier rugby nations, their top players won’t play Test rugby for a couple of years, which is a diabolical situation.
“We just got players on the field and we did what nobody else expected we could do, and I think we’ll just use that as a template going forward … we’ll just get it done.”
While the Springboks-Lions series switching to Australia may remain a bit of a longshot — South Africa haven’t given up on hosting the series, while there have also been reports it could be contested across the UK but without the presence of crowds — the appetite to push the tour to 2022 is low given it would eat into preparations for the World Cup the following year.
England coach Eddie Jones and the captains of each of the four Home Unions have already signaled their hesitation at a 2022 Lions tour.
Australia also boasts a huge expat community from South Africa, Ireland and the rest of the UK, suggesting the Tests would be well attended; Wallabies fans would also likely snap up tickets to what is always a special event.
“There is a multi-generational ex-pat community for both South Africa and the UK out here,” McLennan told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’m confident there would be great patronage for the Tests. Remember, they are some of our biggest communities in Australia. I’m sure we would get a fantastic turnout.”
McLennan said the financial windfall would be split evenly between South Africa and the Lions if the series was played in Australia, with RA likely to only bank minor profits, if any at all.
The Springboks will be desperate to stage the tour in some capacity, having played no Test rugby in 2020, while the Six Nations was forced to delay it final round before completing it in November after the underwhelming Autumn Nations Cup which still had significant problems with COVID-19 infections.
“Ultimately it’s their call,” McLennan told the Herald.
“What we learnt from the Tri Nations last year and the tennis that’s happening now is that Australia can successfully stage global tournaments in a COVID world.
“It’s particularly tough in the UK and South Africa at the moment and I believe the more international rugby that gets played here, the better.
“We’re here to help.”
Meanwhile, McLennan confirmed to ESPN that the planned trans-Tasman competition for 2022 was still the desired outcome for both RA and New Zealand Rugby.
Speculation late last year suggested a 12-team competition was set to be unveiled imminently, only for no official announcement to follow.
“Yeah, I think there is a real desire to get that moving, but we’ve just had so much to do, just keeping the game afloat [in Australia] over the last six to eight months,” McLennan said. “And we’re frantically working towards getting this year launched.
“But we’ve got meetings planned and we’re in constant dialogue with New Zealand, so it’s all good.”
The Australian and New Zealand sides will contest a “crossover” five-week series once Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa have come to a close.