World Cup-holders South Africa pulled out of the Rugby Championship Friday over complications caused by the coronavirus, badly diminishing the tournament and raising further questions about their future in southern hemisphere rugby.
The Springboks, who haven't played since winning their third World Cup in Japan nearly a year ago, cited government travel restrictions, player welfare and safety concerns for their withdrawal.
It means the competition in Australia from October 31 will be slashed from 12 games to six, involving only Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
The pull-out by the defending champions also prompted speculation about future editions of the Rugby Championship, after South Africa walked away from the southern hemisphere's provincial-level Super Rugby last month in favour of Europe's PRO14.
South African Rugby chief Jurie Roux said the withdrawal was a "hugely disappointing outcome for supporters and commercial partners.
"But the ongoing impacts of the pandemic in multiple dispensations mean we are unable to deliver a Springbok team without seriously compromising player welfare, apart from other logistical challenges."
While New Zealand resumed rugby in June and Australia soon after, Covid-19 forced a longer shutdown in South Africa, with the Springboks' players facing the prospect of travelling to Australia with only 80 minutes of game-time under their belt.
Coach Jacques Nienaber wanted close to 500 minutes.
There were suggestions they could be replaced by a Barbarians side or Australia A to ensure the four-team draw stayed intact, but organisers opted to return the tournament to its former Tri-Nations format.
The Wallabies will face the All Blacks in Sydney on October 31 to kick off the event and then again on November 7 in Brisbane. Both teams will then take turns playing Argentina in subsequent weeks.
- 'Covid gift keeps giving' -
The Rugby Championship was originally scheduled to begin in August until the pandemic forced a postponement. It was then supposed to feature six straight double-headers through November and early December.
But that plan fell through when New Zealand demanded their final game on December 12 be moved so they could complete the Covid-enforced quarantine on their return home before Christmas Day.
Andy Marinos, chief executive of SANZAAR, the tournament's governing body, joked that "Covid is just a gift that keeps on giving".
"SANZAAR recognises the challenges and adversity that the national unions have had to face this year due to the pandemic," he added.
"It is a tribute to the unions in how they have been able to adapt."
However, South Africa's no-show could signal an end to the SANZAAR alliance, which has become increasingly tenuous during the coronavirus crisis.
"It would not be a surprise if the World Cup champions now play all of their rugby in Europe," said a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Springboks, whose last match was their win over England in the World Cup final last November, now face the prospect of no Test rugby until they host the British and Irish Lions in Soweto next July -- a gap of 20 months.
They will also suffer a considerable financial blow with SA Rugby standing to lose a reported 300 million rand ($18 million/15.5 million euros) by not taking part.
The governing body had to slash 1.2 million rand of the 2020 budget after the pandemic halted rugby in South Africa last March.
It suffered losses in 2016 and 2017 before making small profits in the following two years.
Rugby Championship draw:
October 31 - Australia v New Zealand at Sydney's ANZ Stadium
November 7 - Australia v New Zealand at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium
November 14 - New Zealand v Argentina at Sydney's Bankwest Stadium
November 21 - Australia v Argentina at Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium
November 28 - Argentina v New Zealand at Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium
December 5 - Argentina v Australia at Sydney's Bankwest Stadium