ROUNDS three and four of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been suspended after the French government asked its country’s clubs not to take part in either competition for at least the rest of the month. Fears over the rapid spread of the new variant of Covid 19 are behind the decision, and a meeting of Emmanuel Macron’s administration will now be held tomorrow (Tuesday) to decide whether France should participate in the Six Nations Championship in the currently scheduled dates in February and March.
The suspension means that Glasgow will not travel to France to play against Lyon on Saturday. Edinburgh’s home match against Sale Sharks is also off. The French are now expected to reschedule some league matches for this weekend, although it was not immediately clear whether the PRO14 would be able to do the same.
Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) announced the decision at 5.30pm today [Monday] in a statement which read:
“Following a directive from the French authorities that the participation of TOP 14 clubs in the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup at the current time constitutes too great a public health risk, EPCR has no choice but to announce on Monday, 11 January that the 2020/21 tournaments are temporarily suspended.
“EPCR and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby took part in a meeting by audio conference last week with representatives of the French ministries of the Interior, Health and Sport, as well as of the President’s office.
“Notable updates to EPCR’s COVID-19 protocols were presented to the French authorities, including the addition of PCR tests no earlier than three days before matches in the tournaments, conforming to French government guidelines and supplementing the existing, meticulous contact tracing measures put in place with a view to limiting the risk of transmission.
“Against the backdrop of the recent detection of a new strain of coronavirus, the French government has directed that French clubs postpone their participation in EPCR’s tournaments for the month of January, both for matches scheduled in France and for those due to be played in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“On the basis of this directive, EPCR had no choice but to temporarily suspend the pool stage of the Heineken Champions Cup and the preliminary stage of the Challenge Cup.
“While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR, in conjunction with its shareholder leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable. EPCR will be making no further comment at the present time.”
Speaking before the decision of the French government was announced, EPCR chief executive Vincent Gaillard insisted there would still be time to complete the two tournaments in April and May. He admitted, however, that losing two weekends this month could force the formats of both to be rejigged.
“We are expecting a definitive directive from the French government – which we have not received so far – as to whether or not the French clubs will be able to participate in rounds three or four of this season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup,” Gaillard said. “We are going to start working on different scenarios as soon as this decision comes in.
“We have four weekends currently scheduled over the months of April and May, but we have six weekends required to finish the season. As soon as the decision comes in we’ll get together with the three leagues – the PRO14, the Premiership in England and the LNR in France – to find the best way forward.”
Asked if any forced suspension could become an abandonment, he insisted: “No. No, no. A possible suspension is what we’re looking at. But we are very confident that those weekends in April and May will be used in one way or another.”
However, as Gaillard pointed out, with only four weekends available in spring, and six weekends needed to complete the tournaments in their present format, something will have to give if the pool games due to be played this weekend and next are postponed. The Champions Cup has already been chopped down from its usual format of six rounds in the pool stages to four, and calling a halt to the pools after just two rounds of games would hardly give a true indication of teams’ form.
Those weekends in April and May are currently earmarked for staging the quarter-finals, which will consist of home and away legs, then semi-finals and the final. Scrapping the quarter-finals altogether would thus provide the two weekends needed to complete the pool stage as intended, while one alternative would be to hold one more round of pool matches in April then go straight to single-leg quarter-finals.
EPCR’s difficulties with Emmanuel Macron’s government began a few days before Christmas, in the wake of Bayonne’s home defeat by Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup. When members of the Bayonne squad tested positive for the new UK strain of Covid, questions were raised about the testing protocols used by English and other clubs, with French sources suggesting they were not as strict as the ones in use in France.
EPCR representatives have since met the French rugby authorities, who in turn have had talks with their government. Gaillard explained that his organisation has tried to assuage the concerns of the French by changing the protocols used by all clubs in the tournaments.
“We have recently modified our protocols in light of some of the events that happened around round two, in such a way that the protocol becomes compliant with what we know of the French government’s regulations,” he continued. “I think we will regret if the postponement is the only solution we have. However, if the decision is taken and it is clear and unambiguous, of course we will comply with it.”
Glasgow, who were handed a 28-0 defeat by Lyon after being unable to complete that game due to Covid restrictions, were due to end their pool campaign with a home game against Exeter. Edinburgh were scheduled to complete their pool-stage fixtures with a visit to La Rochelle.
The knock-on effect of this on the Six Nations is not yet clear. The championship is due to kick-off in four weeks’ time and with infection rates rising across the territory, it would appear logical that the French national team will also be banned from travelling.
If the Six Nations don’t go ahead as scheduled, it would inevitably trigger a review of the existing domestic and international calendars, which might also affect this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
While the Six Nations officially remain hopeful that cross-border international games will take place next month – assisted by biosecure bubbles for national squads – reports in France claim the organisers are considering taking the unprecedented step of hosting the entire championship in one country.
There are already growing concerns that the Women’s Six Nations may not take place with no fixtures yet confirmed.