South America's footballing governing body has suspended the two World Cup qualifying rounds due to take place in March.

CONMEBOL issued a statement on Saturday confirming it will speak with FIFA and national associations to agree on new dates for the matches.

The decision was taken amid concerns around the logistics of players joining up with their national teams while travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic are in place.

CONMEBOL said it was "impossible" to guarantee all South American players could link up with respective squads in a timely manner.

The next two rounds of matches were scheduled to be held on March 25, 26 and 30.

World Rugby has declared this year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand should be postponed to 2022, dealing a major blow to the women's game.

Citing "uncertain and challenging" conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, World Rugby said it would not be possible to suitably stage an event of such scale.

Its recommendation will be put to the Rugby World Cup board and World Rugby's executive committee on March 8 and 9 but seems certain to be passed.

In a statement, the governing body said: "World Rugby has made the difficult decision to recommend the postponement of Rugby World Cup 2021, scheduled to be hosted in New Zealand from September 18 to October 16, until next year.

"While appreciating the recommendation is extremely disappointing for teams and fans, it has their interests at heart, and gives the tournament the best opportunity to be all it can be for them, all New Zealanders and the global rugby family."

It is clear World Rugby has made the recommendation to stave off the possibility of the tournament going ahead in difficult, sterile conditions.

New Zealand as a nation has achieved low instances of COVID-19, in a large part because of strict border controls.

World Rugby said: "It has become clear in recent discussions with key partners including New Zealand Rugby, the New Zealand government and participating unions, that, given the scale of the event and the COVID-19-related uncertainties, it is just not possible to deliver the environment for all teams to be the best that they can be on the sport’s greatest stage.

"The challenges include uncertainty and the ability for teams to prepare adequately for a Rugby World Cup tournament both before and on arrival in New Zealand, and challenging global travel restrictions."

Ireland hosted the last Rugby World Cup for women in 2017, with New Zealand beating England in the final, giving the Black Ferns a fifth victory in the last six editions of the tournament.

All Blacks half-back Aaron Smith has committed to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) until the 2023 World Cup in France after signing a new contract.

NZR confirmed on Tuesday that the 32-year-old, who has 97 caps for the All Blacks, had penned a new deal securing his future with Super Rugby side Highlanders and provincially with Manawatu.

Palmerston North-born Smith is New Zealand's most capped half-back and remains a key member of the All Blacks side who finished third at the 2019 World Cup.

"One thing that hasn't changed is my love for the Highlanders, the All Blacks and Manawatu," Smith said.

"The decision to stay is based on a number of things, but I'm very keen to see the Highlanders do well, we have a good environment here and some great, young players, so I think the next few years will be exciting for us and it'll be great to be part of it.

"Dunedin has been good to me. My wife Teagan and I have a home and a business here and our son Luka was born here. 

"I felt that committing to the Highlanders for another few years in some small way says thanks for all the support we have enjoyed over the years."

All Blacks coach Ian Foster added that Smith's influence on the side could not be underestimated.

"He is so instrumental in the way we play the game and is such a vital cog for us, both on and off the field, so this is fantastic news," Foster said. 

"We're delighted that Aaron, Teagan and his family have decided to commit to New Zealand and congratulate them on the decision."

It is anticipated Smith will bring up his 100th New Zealand cap this year, while he is two caps away from equalling the record for most appearances for the Highlanders.

Johnny Sexton is still "loving every moment" of playing rugby and has no intention of announcing his retirement, despite speculation over his future.

Ireland's captain missed the narrow home defeat to France in the second round of the Six Nations having suffered a head injury during his team's opening loss to Wales. 

However, Sexton is fit to return to action as Andy Farrell's side aim to finally get off the mark in this year's tournament when they take on Italy on Saturday at the Stadio Olimpico.

The 35-year-old raised questions over his career plans when he recently suggested he "might not" be around for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, though later clarified that was a "throwaway comment".

While already contemplating what may come in the next chapter of his life, Sexton remains as committed as ever to the game he loves.

"You never tell anyone your plans because they can change, can't they?" Sexton said.

"I've some things to work towards, whether it's over the next year or two years, I don't know. I'll work towards getting into the real world and starting another life.  

"There are some parts of this game that are amazing and you love – you'd love to be part of it forever. There are other parts, though, that you just can't wait to get a million miles away from. 

"I love it at the moment, I'm loving every moment of playing and I just want to focus on this campaign.

"If I stay on next year, I will try to make the most of that, just try to make the most of whatever is left." 

Sexton is under contract until the end of the campaign but has held negotiations about an extension for 2022, which will be a year out from the next World Cup on French soil. 

Asked if a new deal was close, he replied: "Nearly, nearly. I'm waiting on Leinster to see if they want to keep me or not. They have got a few good number 10s coming through!"

Ireland lost 21-16 to Wales after playing the majority of the match a man down following the red card for Peter O’Mahoney, while they were squeezed out 15-13 by Les Bleus last time out. 

"I don't think we've lost our confidence as a group. The start of the campaign has been a million miles off what we wanted, which was two wins from two," Sexton said on morale within the squad.

"But we took a lot of confidence from the Wales game with 14 men, in terms of the chances we created. The hard part in international rugby is creating chances – we've done plenty of that, we need to now go and take the next step and finish them off.  

"I don't think this group is low on confidence, we are all looking forward to finishing this campaign on a high."

FIFA has warned that any player competing in a European Super League would become ineligible to take part in World Cups, European Championships or the Champions League.

Amid speculation that the biggest clubs from the Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 are keen on forming a breakaway competition, football's world governing body has taken a strong stance against such ideas.

A joint statement from FIFA and the six continental federations read: "In light of recent media speculation about the creation of a closed European 'Super League' by some European clubs, FIFA and the six confederations (AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA) once again would like to reiterate and strongly emphasise that such a competition would not be recognised by either FIFA or the respective confederation.

"Any club or player involved in such a competition would as a consequence not be allowed to participate in any competition organised by FIFA or their respective confederation.

"As per the FIFA and confederation statutes, all competitions should be organised or recognised by the relevant body at their respective level, by FIFA at the global level and by the confederations at the continental level.

"In this respect, the confederations recognise the Club World Cup, in its current and new format, as the only worldwide club competition, while FIFA recognises the club competitions organised by the confederations as the only club continental competitions.

"The universal principles of sporting merit, solidarity, promotion and relegation, and subsidiarity are the foundation of the football pyramid that ensures football's global success and are, as such, enshrined in the FIFA and confederation statutes.

"Football has a long and successful history thanks to these principles. Participation in global and continental competitions should always be won on the pitch."

It was reported in October that FIFA were hoping to create a closed 18-team tournament that would be dubbed the 'European Premier League'.

However, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he was "not interested" in the idea and felt the existing Club World Cup had greater potential.

Prior to his resignation as Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed at a news conference that he had accepted a proposal for the club to join the proposed European Super League.

Diego Maradona has been hailed as a "poet and a great champion" by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church.

Maradona passed away at the age of 60 in November having suffered heart failure.

The former Argentina star is considered as one of the world's greatest ever players, having led his country to World Cup glory in 1986 and taken Napoli from Serie A also-rans to one of Italy's dominant forces.

Maradona had his off-field issues, including drug abuse and doping scandals, but Pope Francis, who met Maradona in 2014, praised the impact his compatriot had.

"I met Diego Armando Maradona during a Match for Peace in 2014: I remember with pleasure everything that Diego did for Scholas Occurrentes, the foundation that takes care of the needy all over the world," The Pope told Gazzetta dello Sport.

"On the pitch he was a poet and a great champion who gave joy to millions of people, in Argentina as in Naples. He was also a very fragile man."

Pope Francis also recalled his memories of the 1986 World Cup, with Maradona starring in Mexico, finishing with five goals and assisting Argentina's winner in the final.

"I have a personal memory linked to the 1986 World Cup, the one that Argentina won thanks to Maradona," Pope Francis continued.

"I was in Frankfurt; it was a difficult time for me, I was studying the language and collecting material for my thesis.

"I hadn't been able to see the World Cup final and I only learned the next day of Argentina's victory over Germany, when a Japanese boy wrote 'Viva l'Argentina' on the blackboard during a German lesson.

"I remember it, personally, as the victory of loneliness because I had no one with whom to share the joy of that sporting victory: loneliness makes you feel alone, while what makes joy beautiful is being able to share it.

"When I was told of Maradona's death, I prayed for him and sent the family a rosary with a few personal words of comfort."

Cristiano Ronaldo indicated he has no plans to retire by saying he hopes to play on for "many, many years" despite preparing to turn 36 in February.

The Juventus forward has shown no signs of slowing his goal output, finishing the 2019-20 season with 31 goals and a second Serie A title before firing in 12 in 10 league appearances this term.

In 2020 he became the fourth player in the history of Italy's top flight to score 33 goals in a calendar year after Omar Sivori (33 in 1961), Gunnar Nordahl (36 in 1950) and Felice Borel (41 in 1933).

That tally puts him top of the goalscoring charts in Europe's top five leagues this year, ahead of The Best FIFA Men's Player award winner Robert Lewandowski (32).

Portugal captain Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar but hinted that he intends to be there.

"It doesn't matter the age. What is important is the mind," Ronaldo told BBC Sport, after being named Player of the Century at the Globe Soccer Awards this week.

"It doesn't matter if Cristiano Ronaldo is good, you don't know tomorrow what is going to happen. I live in the present, in the moment.

"The moment is good, I feel happy, I feel sharp and in a good moment in my life. I hope to play many, many years more but you never know."

Ronaldo scored a brace in Juventus' 3-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League on December 8 and followed it up with doubles in Serie A victories over Genoa and Parma – either side of missing a penalty in a draw against Atalanta.

Despite his impressive form, the Bianconeri are sixth in the table, 10 points behind league leaders Milan, and Ronaldo admitted the absence of fans at the Allianz Stadium frustrated him.

"I don't like to play in the stadiums without fans, it's like going to the circus but you don't see clowns," Ronaldo said.

"The pandemic has made people crazy. I hope soon they can open the gates of the stadiums.

"We have to live with that, we have to try to do a normal life but of course we have to respect the rules. But to play without the fans, I really don't like it."

Cristiano Ronaldo indicated he has no plans to retire by saying he hopes to play on for "many, many years" despite preparing to turn 36 in February.

The Juventus forward has shown no signs of slowing his goal output, finishing the 2019-20 season with 31 goals and a second Serie A title before firing in 12 in 10 league appearances this term.

In 2020 he became the fourth player in the history of Italy's top flight to score 33 goals in a calendar year after Omar Sivori (33 in 1961), Gunnar Nordahl (36 in 1950) and Felice Borel (41 in 1933).

That tally puts him top of the goalscoring charts in Europe's top five leagues this year, ahead of The Best FIFA Men's Player award winner Robert Lewandowski (32).

Portugal captain Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar but hinted that he intends to be there.

"It doesn't matter the age. What is important is the mind," Ronaldo told BBC Sport, after being named Player of the Century at the Globe Soccer Awards this week.

"It doesn't matter if Cristiano Ronaldo is good, you don't know tomorrow what is going to happen. I live in the present, in the moment.

"The moment is good, I feel happy, I feel sharp and in a good moment in my life. I hope to play many, many years more but you never know."

Ronaldo scored a brace in Juventus' 3-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League on December 8 and followed it up with doubles in Serie A victories over Genoa and Parma – either side of missing a penalty in a draw against Atalanta.

Despite his impressive form, the Bianconeri are sixth in the table, 10 points behind league leaders Milan, and Ronaldo admitted the absence of fans at the Allianz Stadium frustrated him.

"I don't like to play in the stadiums without fans, it's like going to the circus but you don't see clowns," Ronaldo said.

"The pandemic has made people crazy. I hope soon they can open the gates of the stadiums.

"We have to live with that, we have to try to do a normal life but of course we have to respect the rules. But to play without the fans, I really don't like it."

Rugby World Cup 2023 hosts France will face New Zealand in the pool phase, while reigning champions South Africa have been paired with Ireland and Scotland. 

France and three-time winners New Zealand are joined in Pool A by Italy, plus qualifiers from the Americas and Africa regions. 

Ireland and Scotland faced each other in the 2019 tournament in Japan and will lock horns again as rivals in Pool B, which also contains the current holders in the Springboks. 

Pool C has a sense of familiarity to it, Wales, Australia and Fiji once again grouped together, as was also the case last year. 

And in Pool D, England coach Eddie Jones will face his former team in Japan plus Argentina, who beat New Zealand for the first time in their history last month.

Twelve teams have so far qualified for the tournament, with eight more to be determined by November 2022.

Tournament organisers will announce fixtures and venues in February 2021.


Pool A: New Zealand, France, Italy, Americas qualifier, Africa qualifier

Pool B: South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Asia/Pacific qualifier, Europe qualifier

Pool C: Wales, Australia, Fiji, Europe qualifier, final qualifier winner

Pool D: England, Japan, Argentina, Oceania qualifier, Americas qualifier

Welsh referee Nigel Owens has confirmed his retirement from international rugby after an illustrious career on the Test stage.

The revered official took charge of his 100th Test in France's Autumn Nations Cup clash against Italy last month, 17 years on from overseeing his first international between Portugal and Georgia.

"Nobody has a divine right to go on forever," Owens, who holds the record for most refereed internationals, said in quotes reported by the Welsh Rugby Union's official website.

"There comes a time where it's time to move on, so international refereeing will come to an end now. That France v Italy game was my last Test match. To go out on 100 is a good time to go."

Owens has a lengthy list of achievements, including overseeing the 2015 Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia and several European showpieces.

The 49-year-old is a respected figure throughout the game and has struck up strong relationships with players and teams, while he has also been involved in several television appearances away from rugby - including an appearance on popular  ITV quiz show 'The Chase' earlier this year.

While Owens will no longer officiate international matches, he still plans to referee in Pro14.

"I'm not going to be around for 2023, I don't want to be. I still hope to referee in the Pro 14 and locally in Wales this season and maybe next as well," he added.

"I will certainly continue to referee in the community game because when you are very fortunate to get so much out of something, I think it's hugely important that you give something back to it as well.

"I'll also be going into a coaching role with the WRU [Welsh Rugby Union], helping some of our talented, young referees we have here in Wales, so that is something I'm quite excited about.

"We currently have five referees including myself refereeing at Pro 14 level so it will be exciting to help them make further progress, as well as our other upcoming male and female referees."

In total, Owens has refereed matches involving 25 different international teams. He has officiated more matches involving New Zealand than any other nation (25).

Gregor Townsend will remain in charge of Scotland through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup after signing a two-year contract extension.

The former Glasgow Warriors head coach was appointed by Scottish Rugby in 2017 and has won 55 per cent of his 40 Tests in charge of the national team.

Scotland failed to get out of their group at the previous World Cup, missing out on qualifying as they finished behind hosts Japan and Ireland, leading to a restructure of the coaching group.

Townsend oversaw a 2020 Six Nations campaign that resulted in a fourth-place finish, while they recorded two wins in their four Autumn Nations Cup fixtures.

"I am honoured and privileged to have been given the opportunity to continue in my role as Scotland head coach," Townsend said.

"I will be doing all I can, alongside an outstanding support staff, to improve the team as we build towards Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

"Over the past year I believe we have made progress on and off the field which give real grounds for optimism around what this team can achieve."

Scotland's 2021 Six Nations begins with a Calcutta Cup clash against England at Twickenham on February 6, followed by the visit of Wales to Murrayfield a week later.

Paolo Rossi has been described as an inspiration and a hero of Italian football following his death at the age of 64.

Striker Rossi played for Juventus, where he won the Serie A title twice and also the European Cup in 1985, as well as representing Milan and Hellas Verona during his career.

However, the former Italy international will be most fondly remembered for his exploits with the national team, particularly during the 1982 World Cup as the Azzurri were crowned champions.

His six-goal haul saw him finish as the leading scorer in Spain, while he also returned home with the Golden Ball after being voted as the best player at the tournament.

Following the announcement of Rossi's death, reportedly after a battle with illness, Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina praised a player who left an indelible mark on the country's footballing history.

"The passing of 'Pablito' is another deeply painful loss, a wound to the heart of all football fans and one which will be difficult to heal," Gravina said in a tribute posted on the FIGC's official website.

"We've lost a friend and an icon of Italian football. In spurring the national team on to success in 1982, he had Italians celebrating in squares across the country, both for him and with him.

"He indelibly tied his name to the Azzurri and, through his style of play, inspired numerous strikers of future generations."

In 48 international appearances, Rossi scored 20 goals. His tally included a famous hat-trick against Brazil in 1982, as well as the opener as Italy triumphed 3-1 over West Germany in the final.

Rossi's feats led to him winning the Ballon d'Or that year, having been selected by coach Enzo Bearzot in Italy's squad despite making just three Serie A appearances for Juventus in the 1981-82 season. Rossi had been banned for his alleged role in the 'Totonero' match-fixing scandal but returned to action in time for the World Cup.

Current Juve boss Andrea Pirlo posted a picture on Twitter of 'Pablito' celebrating with Italy, along with the words: "You will always remain our hero."

Juventus, the reigning Serie A champions, produced an online tribute to their former player, in which they referenced Rossi's ability to score "all types of goals, using his uniquely physical style to his advantage".

Juve also added a description of an "iconic" goal against Manchester United that sealed a place in the Cup Winners' Cup final in 1984, a trophy they went on to lift thanks to victory over Porto.

The death of Paolo Rossi hit Dino Zoff like "a bolt from the blue" as Italy mourned the loss of the man who lit up the 1982 World Cup. 

Striker Rossi won the Golden Boot as the tournament's six-goal top scorer and also took the Golden Ball award as its best player. 

Zoff, the goalkeeper and captain of that Azzurri team, said he had no inkling that Rossi was seriously ill. 

Rossi's death, reportedly following a battle with illness, was confirmed on Thursday by his wife and Rai Sport, where he worked. 

He was 64 and is best remembered for his 1982 feats at the World Cup hosted by Spain. 

Rossi scored a famous hat-trick against Brazil at that tournament, before adding two goals in the semi-final with Poland and going on to net the opener in the 3-1 win over West Germany in the final. 

Zoff, quoted in La Gazzetta dello Sport, said: "I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say, it was a bolt from the blue. We've always had a great relationship with Paolo, a nice guy, intelligent, we haven't heard from each other for a while, they told us something but I didn't think it was so serious. 

"The relationship with him was wonderful, he was very nice. It's something that is difficult to understand."

Rossi was also a Ballon d'Or winner in 1982 and his Italy career saw him score 20 goals in 48 games. 

At club level, he won two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and a European Cup among a string of trophies with Juventus. 

Fulvio Collovati, a centre-back in the 1982 World Cup team, said there would be a feeling of collective loss within that band of champions. 

"A part of us has gone," Collovati said. "A part of my life goes away." 

Italy's former prime minister Matteo Renzi added on Twitter: "In our hearts, forever. Farewell Pablito."

Lionel Messi thanked the late Alejandro Sabella for helping create some of his greatest memories after the former Argentina coach died on Tuesday.

Sabella, who led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final that ended in defeat to Germany, passed away in hospital at the age of 66 following a long illness.

Among the former midfielder's top achievements was leading Estudiantes to the 2009 Copa Libertadores title and taking Pep Guardiola's Barcelona to extra time in the Club World Cup final in the same year.

Mauro Boselli put Estudiantes in front before Pedro equalised in the 89th minute and Messi secured a 2-1 winner in the second additional period.

In a tribute posted on Instagram, Messi wrote: "It was a pleasure to share so much with you. Alejandro was a great person, aside from being an impressive professional who shaped my career and I learned a lot from him.

"We experienced some of my best memories in football together during the World Cup qualifying stage and also at the World Cup. My condolences to all his family and friends."

Estudiantes great Juan Sebastian Veron, a Libertadores champion under Sabella in 2009 and now the team's chairman, expressed his emotions at the loss of Sabella, insisting he plans to carry on the former coach's work.

"Words are never enough when what needs to be said overwhelms the soul. We can cry, close our minds, feel the void and turn our backs. Or we can continue to do and convey everything Ale taught us, gave us," Veron wrote.

"Solidarity. Us before the individual. And so many values you always highlighted. We're going to miss you. I'm going to miss you. But it's in us to get on with what you left us."

Former England hooker Steve Thompson has announced he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and declared he cannot remember being part of the team's 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph.

The 42-year-old, who spent most of his club career with Northampton, is one of eight players reportedly planning to take legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. Former Wales back-rower Alix Popham is among those players.

According to the Guardian, the players, who are all also reported to have suspected chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), will claim those rugby authorities failed to provide adequate protection against cases of concussion.

CTE is a progressive brain condition that has affected boxers and American football players previously, with medical experts believing it is caused by blows to the head and incidents of concussion.

Thompson played throughout England's World Cup final against Australia, which was settled by Jonny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop goal in extra time, but now he says the memories have gone.

"I can't remember it. I've got no memorabilia. I've got no feelings about it," he told the Guardian. "You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it."

Thompson has no doubt the intense demands of rugby, and particularly the nature of training sessions in the early days of the professional era, have brought him to where he is today.

"It's the rugby that's put me through this," Thompson said.

Thompson suspects the eight players who have enlisted legal representation are far from alone in suffering such effects from playing rugby union.

The sport became professional in the wake of the 1995 World Cup, and Thompson suspects the early years of the paid era, as the sport transitioned to its new ways with full-time training, is when players were at their most vulnerable.

"I can see the numbers being high, especially for the first players to come through, what, ’96‑97 up to the mid-2000s, really," Thompson said.

"The 2011 World Cup camp was completely different to the 2003 World Cup camp. In 2011 it was a lot more technical, whereas in 2003 you just had to beast yourself."

He said at times when he was with England, "they literally just beasted you until you fell apart", describing the demands on players as "brutal".

Thompson believes there was sufficient expertise in the ranks of non-playing staff to know something was not right.

He said: "You think how many specialists were out there watching that and not saying anything.

"They knew what was happening. And nothing was done about it. People were getting knocked on the head and it was not being recorded. I'm knocked out in training and it was always: 'It's just a knock on the head, he’ll be fine.'"

Stats Perform News has asked the WRU and World Rugby for a response.

The RFU said in a statement: "The RFU has had no legal approach on this matter. The Union takes player safety very seriously and implements injury prevention and injury treatment strategies based on the latest research and evidence.

"The Union has played an instrumental role in establishing injury surveillance, concussion education and assessment, collaborating on research as well as supporting law changes and law application to ensure proactive management of player welfare."

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