WELLINGTON (Reuters) - World Rugby has postponed all test matches scheduled for July due to travel curbs and health protocols implemented to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, the global governing body said on Friday.
Most cross border and domestic club competitions have been suspended since March as countries battled the COVID-19 pandemic, and the July test window had long been under threat with many nations expecting games to be postponed.
Travel bans, strict quarantine protocols and player safety concerns meant "cross border international rugby competition cannot be hosted in July", World Rugby said in a statement.
It was too early to determine whether matches in the November window would be affected at this stage, it added, with a decision contingent on advice from governments and health organisations.
South Africa Rugby Chief Executive Jurie Roux said health concerns were the priority.
"Any solution will have player health, welfare and appropriate return-to-play protocols at heart," Roux said in a statement.
"It would be inappropriate to comment on potential solutions during a fluid and important consultation process."
World champions South Africa were due to host Scotland and Georgia in July.
The postponements will place further financial strain on most rugby nations, with even the leading countries predicting multi-million dollar losses in 2020 due to reduced television, commercial and ticket revenue.
Many are now looking at alternatives for when restrictions are eased or lifted in an effort to give broadcasters content.
New Zealand has already confirmed that a domestic competition for its Super Rugby teams will start next month, while South Africa and Australia are making similar plans.
VALUABLE OPPORTUNITY LOST
The All Blacks were due to host Wales and Scotland in July but may now look at playing more games against neighbours Australia later in the year with both countries having slowed COVID-19 cases to a trickle.
"From a New Zealand point of view, we are taking a pragmatic approach to the international test programme," NZ Rugby Chief Executive Mark Robinson said in a statement.
"We are working hard to explore any and every opportunity ... and watching with keen interest any Government discussions on a possible trans-Tasman bubble with Australia."
The Wallabies had scheduled July tests against Ireland and Fiji, and Rugby Australia's interim Chief Executive Rob Clarke said the matches could be played later in the year.
"We ... will continue to work with World Rugby to identify a new window within the international calendar to stage the matches," Clarke said.
World Cup runners-up England had been due to play two matches in Japan while Wales coach Wayne Pivac said he had been looking forward to returning to face the 2019 hosts in a one-off test.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph was disappointed the side would not get the chance to build on their impressive World Cup, where they reached the quarter-finals for the first time, with matches against the Six Nations powerhouses.
"It is a pity that we cannot start this year's Japan national team matches, because we lost a valuable opportunity to play Wales and England," Joseph said in a statement.
"However ... it is unavoidable, and it is now time to stay at home and with family."
(Additional reporting by Nick Said in Cape Town and Jack Tarrant in Tokyo; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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