EPCR expects to complete competitions with or without suspension
The organisers of European rugby’s top clubs competitions are weighing up a suspension in light of challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but are confident that they can be completed this season.
There is uncertainty over the 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup after the French government advised the country’s clubs not to participate in cross-border matches given the highly-infectious Covid-19 variant in the UK.
Vincent Gaillard, the chief executive of EPCR, which organises the competitions, told the UK’s BBC Radio 4 that it was looking at a “possible suspension”.
While it is possible that pool fixtures this month could be scrapped, the body believes the tournaments can be concluded in April and May, as scheduled.
Gaillard said he is confident the four weekends would “be used in one way or another.”
The EPCR chief stated the organisation is still waiting for a “definitive directive” from the French government over whether the clubs can play remaining pool games, adding: “We are going to start working on different scenarios as soon as the decision comes in.”
The French sports ministry held talks with EPCR last Thursday after some clubs had called for a boycott of the European competitions in protest at the testing arrangements.
In a statement on Saturday, the ministry said: “The French government is moving, in the short term, towards the adoption of measures to restrict or even prohibit the participation of French team sports clubs in matches including teams from the United Kingdom.
“The Sports Ministry is writing this weekend to LNR [the French rugby league] inviting it to postpone the next matches involving French clubs against British clubs, in accordance with the wishes expressed by several professional French rugby clubs over the last few days.”
In December, Toulon pulled out of a Champions Cup game against Wales’ Scarlets for safety reasons, and Bayonne have threatened to withdraw from the Challenge Cup.
If the two competitions are suspended then England’s Premiership Rugby and the multi-country Pro14 could look to stage fixtures on the gap weekends.
EPCR revamped the format for this season’s Champions Cup, with the 24 teams (up from 20 last year) split between two group-stage pools, leading to two-legged last-eight ties.
The restructuring was carried out in order to provide added value for both broadcast and commercial partners after the disruption to last season’s tournament caused by the pandemic.
The current situation has also raised doubts about the 2021 Six Nations, which is due to start on the weekend of 6 and 7 February.
However, Bernard Laporte, the president of the FFR, said last night that “all will be fine” with new Covid-19 protocols in place to combat the variant of the virus.
It is reported that the Six Nations is opposed to a postponement of the competition, while England’s Rugby Football Union expects the tournament to go ahead as planned.
However, the start of the Women’s Six Nations looks set to be pushed back.
The tournament normally takes place on the same weekends as the men’s event, but dates have yet to be announced amid the resurgence of coronavirus, and it will not kick off until April, according to BBC Sport.
The matches are regarded as crucial preparation ahead of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September and October.
A Six Nations spokesperson said: “A lot of work is being done on the planning of the Women's Six Nations Championship factoring the updated and fast-evolving measures in each country.”
As a result of the pandemic, the 2020 Six Nations and Women’s Six Nations were suspended and not completed until the autumn, and three of the women’s games were ultimately cancelled.