By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rugby Australia are looking at potentially including both the Western Force and Japan's Sunwolves in a competition with their four Super Rugby sides to start in early July, high performance manager Ben Whitaker said on Monday.
With social isolation measures introduced to combat COVID-19 starting to ease around the country, the ACT Brumbies returned to their training ground in Canberra on Monday with the other Super Rugby teams expected to follow this week.
The resumption of Super Rugby is impossible because of international travel bans so Australia is looking to follow New Zealand's lead by setting up a one-country competition to get players back on the pitch.
Whitaker confirmed that the Force, the Perth-based team axed from Super Rugby in 2017 to cut costs but kept alive by mining billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, had been part of ongoing discussions.
"Since we postponed the competition in March, we've been speaking openly with the Western Force about their involvement and that remains really positive," he told reporters.
"The Western Force are very much involved in all our plans."
The Sunwolves were part of the Australian conference for the 2020 Super Rugby season, their last before they too were set for the axe from the otherwise southern hemisphere competition.
While the difficulty of international travel makes the Tokyo-based side's inclusion more complicated, Whitaker said there had been discussions about locating the squad in Australia for the duration of the competition.
"The Sunwolves would be located in New South Wales or Queensland," he said. "We're working closely with government on the opportunity for them to do that.
"Once we know exactly what's happening with the Sunwolves, we'll be able to confirm the competition, the draw, and the like."
Whitaker said the competition would last for 12 weeks from early July with the last two rounds encompassing the playoffs and final.
The competition would run through the July test window meaning the two tests Australia were scheduled to host against Ireland and one against Fiji will almost certainly not be played, although the final call on that lies with World Rugby.
Whitaker said talks were ongoing about possibly moving the July tests back to October before Australia's scheduled annual tour of Europe in November.
With restrictions on travelling to South Africa and Argentina in place until September, the Rugby Championship was also almost certainly going to be put back, he said.
He was more confident about the chance of Australia playing test rugby against New Zealand's All Blacks in the shorter term if the respective governments agreed to allow travel between the two nations.
"These are all topics discussed on a daily basis," Whitaker said. "We are all extremely committed to having as much test rugby as possible this year."
Rugby Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Warren McDonald, said a staged framework for a return to contact training by May 25 and full team training from June 8 had been submitted to the government for approval.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)