Australia wants to cash in on its adept handling of Covid-19 by inviting international rugby union teams to play in a “mini world cup” during the southern hemisphere winter.
Hamish McLennan, Rugby Australia chairman, said the French team was due to tour Australia in July and he planned to ask other nations if they would play in a competition that could run in parallel with the Rugby Championship — a tournament featuring New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa, the reigning world champions.
He also disclosed that Rugby Australia had held exploratory talks with private equity groups to attract more capital into the cash-strapped sport, which has endured a “nightmare” year because of the pandemic.
“We are still expecting the Rugby Championship to go ahead this year but perhaps we can add to it and create a ‘mini world cup’,” Mr McLennan told the Financial Times.
“We have the French [arriving] in July but if anyone else wants to come out, great. We have a significant British and Irish population here and South Africans. We are open to creating a new tournament and keeping the international calendar going.”
Mr McLennan said the European and South African rugby calendars looked “very sketchy” owing to Covid-19 and Australia was an ideal location where teams could play matches in front of crowds.
He said it was “a fluid situation” but if the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa was cancelled in July because of the pandemic, Australia could host the teams in a safe environment.
Australia is one of a select group of countries that has suppressed the virus by rapidly shutting its international borders, imposing lockdowns and pursuing contact tracing. This has enabled life to return to a semblance of normalcy and international sporting events with spectators to resume.
Despite border restrictions, the Wallabies hosted Argentina and New Zealand for a rugby tournament, India and Australia are playing a cricket series and the Australian Open tennis will begin next month.
However, Mr McLennan’s proposal to host a mini world cup would probably face opposition from rival rugby unions, which are hoping that vaccines will allow the resumption of spectator sports, according to rugby analysts.
Mr McLennan, a former media executive, is exploring innovative ways to boost Rugby Australia’s finances and grow the sport following a cash crisis precipitated by Covid-19 and tough competition from rival sports. Rugby Australia reported a deficit of A$9.4m in 2019.
“It [Covid-19] was a complete nightmare. We’ve reduced our headcount by about half and taken nearly A$40m [$31m], about a third of the cost, out of the organisation,” said Mr McLennan.
He said the virus had accelerated rugby’s need to look at alternative funding mechanisms.
“I have chatted at a high level with CVC, Silver Lake and a few other private equity groups and these have been constructive.”
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Tattarang, the private investment vehicle of Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, has also held talks with Rugby Australia.
Private equity groups are expanding their presence in rugby union. Luxembourg-based CVC owns minority stakes in the English premiership and Pro14 competitions in Europe. Silver Lake is in talks to acquire a 15 per cent stake in the commercial operations of NZ Rugby, the body that runs the All Blacks.