The Rugby Championship has hit yet another snag, after New Zealand Rugby said it hadn't agreed to the schedule released on Thursday morning.
The draw for the six-week tournament was unveiled by tournament hosts Rugby Australia and SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos in Sydney, only for NZ Rugby to only minutes later issue a press release stating the Dec. 12 date for the closing Tests did not satisfy their wishes and that a Dec. 5 date had in fact been slated.
With players having to quarantine for two weeks on their return to New Zealand, the Dec. 12 date means the All Blacks won't be able to spend Christmas Day with their families or friends.
"We were working on the understanding and all our planning and scheduling was on the basis that the All Blacks' last match would be on December 5 to give our players and management time to get home, undertake the 14 days' quarantine back in New Zealand, and then be with their families for Christmas, as will be the case for the other three teams in the Tournament," NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said via a media release.
"We understand the commercial considerations in the scheduling. However, the wellbeing of our people is an incredibly important factor in this also.
"We are committed to playing in the Rugby Championship and we know the scheduling of matches has been a complex and dynamic issue to work through, especially with quarantine protocols, but we haven't agreed to this schedule and are disappointed at the announcement.
"We will now work through the issues with Rugby Australia and SANZAAR and believe that there are other solutions within the Rugby Championship window," Robinson said.
Reports suggests the Wallabies had been faced with a similar quarantine scenario when the tournament hub had been slated for New Zealand, with a request for the Championship's final Tests to be expedited also rebuffed.
Other reports suggested the Springboks and Pumas -- who are both yet to resume playing in any form in South Africa and Argentina -- weren't in favour of condensing the schedule given their players have been sidelined since the cancellation of Super Rugby back in mid-March, and would therefore need as much recovery time between games as possible.
Australia and New Zealand were both able to complete domestic Super Rugby competitions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
After winning the right to host the tournament earlier this month, Rugby Australia boss Rob Clarke said it would work with both SANZAAR and NZ Rugby to accommodate the request of condensing the schedule, or even the possibility of midweek matches.
But it appears negotiations have fallen flat since then, leaving the tournament shrouded in uncertainty despite each Union recognising the financial necessities that it proceeds as planned.
"It is a challenge, as it would have been a challenge for the Aussies had the tournament been played there [in New Zealand]," SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said in response to the All Blacks' quarantine conundrum.
"In terms of condensing [the tournament] we've got an obligation to our broadcasters who've been really good to us through this pandemic, to deliver the maximum number of Test matches. And coupled with that there is significant player safety issues, the South Africans and Argentinians coming over here are very under-prepared, with limited rugby. So we have to factor in player safety as well as player welfare.
"And from a high performance and medical perspective, to get the guys to play any more Tests in a condensed period is simply just not going to be achievable.
"It's going to be very problematic, so we're going to continue to work with the relevant governments to try and optimise any quarantine periods that have to take place."
If no agreement can be reached on an alternate date for the final Tests of the Rugby Championship, then the prospect of All Blacks either skipping the tournament or returning home early could well be a reality.
A recent report suggested leading All Blacks were already considering skipping the tournament was widely downplayed by the players themselves and coach Ian Foster, though the idea of being away from their families through Christmas might be too much for some players to bear.
Asked whether it was conceivable that the Rugby Championship might not run due to NZ Rugby's rebuttal of the schedule released on Thursday, Marinos said: "No I don't think so. There's too much at stake, really, around all of it; it's just about how we can best manage the individual needs of all the Unions.
"This is the challenge we've got with the whole pandemic, there's complexities at every single corner; sometimes you've got to make a decision and go forward with it and work on the different permutations.
"At some stages we've seen we're going down a particular path and COVID interactions make us change that path, and this is no different."