European club rugby chiefs have been left scrambling to save this season’s competitions after seven fixtures were postponed due to the French government’s decision to effectively close its borders with the UK. Five matches in the Champions Cup and another two in the Challenge Cup were on Friday called off, plunging the tournaments into chaos.
The postponements came on the same day Premiership Rugby announced 54 positive Covid-19 cases across nine clubs – the highest total since records began – raising the prospect of further disruption to the festive fixture list. As revealed by the Guardian this week, tighter measures – including increased testing and enhanced social distancing – are being introduced at Premiership clubs in an effort to combat the spread of the Omicron variant but more upheaval is inevitable in the coming weeks.
The seven European matches were cancelled due to French government policy rather than outbreaks but in total 10 of the 18 matches have been called off this week. After crisis talks on Friday the organisers of the two European competitions, EPCR, announced that “there were insufficient assurances that these matches would not be at risk”. The French clubs were concerned that any positive cases recorded in the UK would require 10 days of isolation while the British clubs could not fulfil the strict new criteria for entering France and needed elite sport exemption.
As a result, in the second round of the Champions Cup, Bath v La Rochelle, Sale Sharks v Clermont Auvergne, Scarlets v Bordeaux, Toulouse v Wasps and Stade Francais v Bristol Bears were all postponed. Worcester Warriors v Biarritz and London Irish v Brive were called off in the Challenge Cup but the Dragons v Lyon was due to go ahead on Friday night with the French side due to return home immediately after the match.
Organisers have insisted that the intention is to fulfil the fixtures at a later date but that creates a monumental headache over scheduling with no obvious space in the calendar and leaves them open to accusations of double standards, having this month insisted Bristol v Scarlets could not be postponed – though EPCR has cited the “exceptional circumstances” of the French government’s new policy.
The straightforward solution would be to make the two-legged round of last 16 into 80-minute ties to free up a weekend but that is based on the assumption rounds three and four of the pool stage go ahead, which looks far from certain. Further disruption in January would throw both competitions into jeopardy while if matches are not rescheduled the clubs will be left counting the cost with Bristol revealing cancelling the Scarlets fixture cost them around £300,000.
EPCR separately announced the Ospreys would forfeit their match against Racing 92 – a fixture that would not have taken place anyway due to the French travel restrictions – due to a Covid-19 outbreak at the Welsh side. On Thursday, Leinster were left furious after they were forced to forfeit their match in Montpellier despite outbreaks at both clubs while Saracens also handed Pau a walkover after an outbreak at the north London club.