Six Argentine players barred from Wallabies clash after Covid breach

Argentina's scrumhalf Felipe Ezcurra (C) was among the six players ruled out (AFP/Michael Sheehan)
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Argentina's Rugby Championship clash with Australia was thrown into chaos Thursday after six players were ruled out for breaching coronavirus restrictions with an unauthorised trip to a health retreat.

The group, which also included two staff, headed to Byron Bay from their Gold Coast base and were stopped when they tried to return across the state border into Queensland on Wednesday.

Under Covid-19 rules, anyone entering Queensland from a designated Covid hotspot area, like neighbouring New South Wales, must have permission or face mandatory quarantine.

"This travel across the state border is a direct breach of the present Queensland government health orders and Sanzaar's Rugby Championship tournament biosecurity plan," governing body Sanzaar said in a statement, adding that it was "very disappointed".

"All members of this group are now ineligible to participate further in the Rugby Championship as they have breached tournament rules."

Argentina have a 44-strong squad and the game will go ahead on the Gold Coast Saturday, but with capacity capped at 75 percent in Cbus Super Stadium after the state imposed new restrictions Thursday following six new community cases of Covid-19.

The players involved were Sebastian Cancelliere, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Felipe Ezcurra, Pablo Matera, Santiago Medrano and Santiago Socino, with manager Lucas Chioccarelli and video analyst Rodrigo Martinez also with them.

Tighthead prop Medrano and No.8 Matera are first-team regulars who started the 27-8 defeat to Australia last weekend, while hooker Socino frequently comes off the bench.

It is another major headache for coach Mario Ledesma, whose team have lost all five of their tournament games so far. He is due to name his team later Thursday.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said Argentina's problems weren't his concern as Australia chase four wins in a row for the first time at the Rugby Championship.

"The focus is on us," he said after naming 38-year-old prop Greg Holmes on the bench for his first game since 2016 and back-rower Sean McMahon for his first since 2017.

"I've obviously discussed that (Argentina players), but I think there's plenty of motivating factors for them. Whoever we end up in front of us, we'll deal with it on the day."

- Top priority -

Holmes will become the oldest Wallaby since World War II after being brought into camp to help out younger players last month.

Rennie made three changes to his run-on side, with Pete Samu starting for the first time this year at blindside flanker, while Jordan Petaia gets a chance on the wing with Marika Koroibete given the week off.

Elsewhere, Darcy Swain rotates into the starting second row with Matt Philip shifting to the bench.

Argentina Rugby (UAR) said the players and staff stuck in New South Wales were all in "perfect good health" and holed up at a hotel awaiting their fate.

"For the UAR, bringing a solution to this issue has become a top priority," it told AFP.

"At the same time, an internal process has been put into place in order to clarify and to determine responsibility for what has happened."

Queensland Health said it was in talks to work out what happens next, with Los Pumas due to fly out of Australia on Sunday after the Rugby Championship wraps up.

The scandal comes just days after Ledesma lashed out at Sanzaar and Rugby Australia because a captains photo shoot in Townsville last week went ahead without Pumas skipper Julian Montoya.

The Argentina team had yet to arrive in the Queensland town and a fuming Ledesma slammed the decision to press on anyway as "disrespectful" to his team and country, saying "it hurts a lot".

Sanzaar and Rugby Australia subsequently issued an apology, admitting they made a mistake.

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