THE Six Nations will decide on Wednesday evening whether Sunday’s match between France and Scotland can go ahead as planned or should be postponed as a result of the growing number of Covid-positive cases within the French camp.
France announced on Monday that five more members of their squad, including captain Charles Ollivon, had tested positive, taking the number of players affected to ten. Head coach Fabien Galthie and three other members of the backroom staff have also tested positive.
A statement from the Championship’s Testing Oversight Group (TOG) said it had been told by a French official that all players who reported to the national training centre on Sunday had been tested on arrival and kept in isolation until their results were known. The five new positive cases – Ollivon, Cyril Baille, Brice Dulin, Peato Mauvaka and Romain Taofifenua – left the centre yesterday and will now isolate for 10 days. That is also the case with those who tested positive last week: Antoine Dupont, Mohamed Haouas, Gabin Villiere, Arthur Vincent and Julien Marchand.
“The rest of the squad, all of whom tested negative, are training with restricted movement and no close contact for the next 48 hours,” the TOG statement continued. “All players and staff will be tested every 24 hours.
“The TOG will reconvene on Wednesday 24 February in the evening to review the situation. A decision on whether the France v Scotland fixture can go ahead will be made at that stage. Ensuring the health and safety of all players and staff is our number one priority.
“Should the decision be that the fixture cannot go ahead, the match will be rescheduled for the earliest possible date. Six Nations would like to wish all affected players, coaches, and support team a speedy recovery.”
France have called up five new players to replace the latest positive cases: Thomas Ramos, who with 14 caps is by far the most experienced of the quintet; the twice-capped Baptiste Pesenti; and three uncapped players, Gaetan Barlot, Cyril Cazeaux and Thierry Paiva. The French squad plan to resume squad training on Wednesday. The Scotland squad, meanwhile, convened today and plan to continue to prepare as normal for a Sunday match at the Stade de France until told otherwise.
The deferral of the decision until Wednesday night reflects the desire of the Six Nations for the game to go ahead as scheduled, while the suggestion that any rescheduling should be at “the earliest possible date” indicates the urge to adhere as closely as practicable to the original schedule for the tournament. It is as yet unclear how many more positive cases would need to be recorded before the tournament organisers decided that a postponement was necessary on health-and-safety grounds, although obviously the greater number of positive cases, the more pressure would be on the organisers to postpone the game.
However, injuries and illness are factors which affect player availability before the vast majority of rugby matches, and there are no universally applicable rules that state a match can or must be postponed when the number of unavailable players goes above a certain level. Earlier this season, Glasgow’s Champions Cup game against Lyon was cancelled after 20 Warriors players had to self-isolate following Covid exposure, a number that meant it was deemed Danny Wilson’s side would be unable to field a team. (Lyon were awarded a 28-0 win, but only because no other date was available to play the game – a factor that does not apply in the case of France v Scotland). But the French national team clearly has far greater potential playing resources available to it than a club side.
If the match is postponed, the earliest possible date for a rescheduling would, in theory, be the following weekend, as no Six Nations games are due to be played then. But that would be fraught with difficulties, with both France and Scotland conceivably raising objections to it going ahead then.
From the French point of view, most if not all of their current Covid cases would not be deemed ready to play again so soon after isolating. In addition, both national squads could find it difficult to have players released to them by their clubs because of World Rugby’s Regulation Nine, which determines which weekends come into the international window. The weekend of 6-7 March is not one of them, meaning French and English clubs would be within their rights to hold on to players such as Finn Russell and Jonny Gray.
Broadcasting schedules and a crowded calendar may make it preferable for the match to take place as soon as possible, but as last year showed, it is perfectly feasible for Six Nations games to go ahead months after their original date. The game between Wales and Scotland was one fixture which went ahead in the autumn after being postponed in March as the pandemic began to take hold – although the postponement was only made after a prolonged insistence by interested parties that the game would go ahead as planned.