By Gareth James
European rugby bosses are coming under increasing pressure to shift from their hardline stance over fulfilling scheduled fixtures in this season’s tournaments.
Much arm-twisting is going on behind the scenes following the chaotic preparations for the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup being experienced by Cardiff, the Scarlets, Munster and Zebre.
Most of Cardiff’s stranded group in South Africa are hoping to fly back to the UK on Thursday, where they will undergo 10 days of quarantine in a hotel near Heathrow.
The Scarlets are already going through the same process in Belfast after they, too, were grounded in Durban following changes in travel restrictions to the UK.
Half of the Munster squad have now tested positive for Covid-19 in South Africa and must do their quarantine there, while Zebre are back in Italy, but also having to quarantine.
It means all the affected teams will struggle to get teams together with any meaningful preparation for their first European games which kick-off next weekend.
There is no mention of any of this backdrop, or the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) response, on their own website. In their world the problems appear not to exist and their current stance is to insist all the opening group games in both tournaments must go ahead as planned.
Cardiff are due to host Toulouse in the Champions Cup on 11 December, while Munster are scheduled to travel to Wasps a day later.
So Cardiff’s 10-day UK quarantine is due to start on December 2, nine days before their @ChampionsCup home tie against holders Toulouse. That leaves them in danger of having to forfeit the match. The statement makes no reference to it. https://t.co/Im137ST1wN
— Peter Jackson (@JackoRugby) November 30, 2021
The Scarlets are scheduled to begin their European campaign against Bristol at Ashton Gate on 11 December
A spokesperson for European Professional Club Rugby, organisers of the Champions Cup, said: “We are monitoring the situation and are in contact with the clubs.”
A crowded fixture list, with no spare weekends, has led EPCR to play hardball and demand the fixtures are fulfilled, or else teams will forfeit five points with the declaration of a 28-0 recorded scoreline in favour of the opposition.
But representatives from the unions are insisting EPCR re-visit their decision and allow fixtures to be moved to new dates.
Another option would be to allow clubs to bring in short-term signings of players from outside their squads in order to play those pool matches.
It is believed it will require a competition-wide change in the rules to allow all 24 teams to amend their squad.
Last season, the strict rules over postponements drew criticism after a handful of coronavirus-related cancellations saw teams deemed responsible handed 28-0 defeats.
The two weekends of United Rugby Championship (URC) matches in South Africa involving travelling sides Cardiff, Scarlets, Munster and Zebre were postponed on Friday following the detection of the Omicron variant.
📢 Statement: Cardiff Rugby prepare for Cape Town departure
Cardiff Rugby plan to depart Cape Town on Thursday morning after the club secured a charter flight and quarantine accommodation in England.https://t.co/5DFFsMx83V
— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) November 30, 2021
A Cardiff statement read: “Cardiff Rugby plan to depart Cape Town on Thursday morning after the club secured a charter flight and quarantine accommodation in England.
“The Blue and Blacks’ travelling contingent, which includes 15 full Welsh internationals, had been left stranded in the city after South Africa was placed on the UK’s red list and borders were closed to arrivals from six countries on the continent – now 10.
“It had been hoped they would be able to depart on a flight with Munster Rugby, Scarlets and Zebre Parma on Sunday, but two positive cases ruled out the departure.
“However, working in collaboration with the United Rugby Championship and the Welsh Rugby Union, a charter flight has been confirmed for Thursday morning.
“Upon arrival in England, Wales’ capital city club will then begin a 10-day period of isolation in a UK Government Covid-19 hotel.
“Those remaining in South Africa will undertake 10-days quarantine in a South African Covid-19 hotel and will be repatriated to the UK as soon as possible.
“Cardiff Rugby would like to thank the URC, WRU and government agencies in South Africa for their support at this difficult time.”