The world champions South Africa have officially withdrawn from the Rugby Championship, leaving just Australia, New Zealand and Argentina to challenge for the 2020 title.
SANZAAR, the tournament organisers, announced on Friday that South Africa would not travel to Australia due to several factors including South African government travel restrictions, player welfare and safety concerns, and the ongoing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the Springboks' withdrawal, the competition will revert to the original three-team format eight years after Argentina joined the tournament.
The competition will now feature six Tests over six consecutive weeks, with each team to play each other twice. The matches will be stated in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle.
"It is extremely disappointing that the Springboks, due to the continued complexities of operating in and around this COVID environment, cannot fully compete in the previously planned six-round Rugby Championship," SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said in a statement.
"That said this now presents us with a unique opportunity, in this our 25th year, to close off 2020 with a SANZAAR Tri Nations Competition."
SA Rugby was given a 48-hour extension on Wednesday to make a decision regarding the Springboks' participation in the tournament, and the union released an update on Thursday (CAT) after reports that it would abandon the competition.
"This is a hugely disappointing outcome for supporters and commercial partners but the ongoing impacts of the pandemic... mean we are unable to deliver a Springbok team without seriously compromising player welfare, apart from other logistical challenges," SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said in a statement issued with SANZAAR.
Australia and New Zealand staged domestic Super Rugby competitions following the abandonment of the Super Rugby 2020 season, but South Africa has taken to the field for it own competition only recently -- the tournament kicked off last weekend -- while Argentina has been unable to host domestic competition since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"SANZAAR recognises the challenges and adversity that the national unions have had to face this year due to the pandemic. It is a tribute to the Unions in how they have been able to adapt and, dependent on COVID restrictions, run domestic competitions with the exception of Argentina who has been impacted the hardest through their lockdown," Marinos said.
"These short domestic tournaments, and in Argentina's case no domestic competition, are not the normal lead into an international window, and while it has been a far from ideal preparation we look forward to an exciting and vibrant Tri-Nations tournament."
Roux said that the challenges within South Africa were compounded by the fact that 24 overseas-based players, who had been identified for potential selection (depending on COVID-19 status) and for whom visas had been applied, were based with European or Japanese clubs.
"Players in England, Ireland, France and Japan are subject to differing local regulations and travel protocols and potentially imminent renewed lockdowns in some territories," he said.
"It was unclear when they would be able to become functioning members of the Springbok squad in Australia.
"We understand that public safety concerns come first, and there's no way that we could expect short cuts to be found to get them out of their host countries and into the Springbok bubble.
"But the impact on our planning was profound and took us to a bottom line that we could not in fairness commit to being able to compete."
Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby Director of Rugby, said that his department had "worked out that the players needed a minimum of 400 minutes of game time before they could be ready for a Test matc".
"The overseas-based players had started playing before us, and they would have been getting close to that time by 7 November.
"But many of those have completed their programs or have had COVID outbreaks which has interrupted the planning. The Japanese-based players haven't played any rugby at all, while the home-based players would be well short of 400 minutes by the time of kick off."
South Africa's withdrawal represents a big hit to the tournament's revenue at a time when the participating nations are battling financial challenges brought by the pandemic.
"Clearly it has financial implications ... and the broadcast implications of that are still to be worked through," Rugby Australia boss Rob Clarke told reporters.
"A bit more notice would have been welcome, there's no doubt about that. But I know how difficult these things are."
The reduction in matches may also create tensions with broadcasters, who expected a full competition and could seek to renegotiate terms.
Rugby Australia, in particular, is under pressure as it looks to land a new TV rights deal for 2021 and beyond, but more broadly the decision raises concerns about the long-term future of southern hemisphere rugby.
South Africa has long considered the idea of playing in the northern hemisphere, due to the lucrative European TV market, easier logistics and a more favourable timezone, and SARU voted less than three weeks ago to pull its four major franchises from Super Rugby and explore expanding their presence in the European PRO14 competition.
South Africa's Cheetahs and Southern Kings have played in the PRO14 since 2017.
Clarke denied the southern alliance was fracturing.
"This isn't a normal year," he said. "South Africa has expressed overtly its commitment to the TRC into the future."
Northern hemisphere nations are scheduled to play in the new eight-team Autumn Nations Cup in Europe in November, with the 2021 Six Nations to start in February.
South Africa, however, face hosting the British & Irish Lions in July 2021 without having played a Test since their victory in last year's Rugby World Cup final in Japan.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said the Springboks' absence was disappointing for the Rugby Championship, and for his players.
"If they're not coming, obviously there are less games and less opportunity for some of our young guys to get a taste of Springbok footy," Rennie said on a Zoom call.
"It's been a challenging year. Again we're going to have make changes and adjust."
The Pumas arrived in Australia last week and have been training within their own quarantine bubble, while the Wallabies and All Blacks played their first Bledisloe Test last Sunday and will take to the field again on Sunday for Bledisloe II.
October 31: Australia vs. New Zealand (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
November 7: Australia vs. New Zealand (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
November 14: New Zealand vs. Argentina (Bankwest Stadium, Sydney)
November 21: Argentina vs. Australia (McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle)
November 28: Argentina vs. New Zealand (McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle)
December 5: Australia vs. Argentina (Bankwest Stadium, Sydney)
- Information from Reuters was used in this report