European rugby chiefs are investigating how testing procedures might be altered to prevent Covid-19 causing more disruption to the Champions and Challenge Cup group phases this month. Some French clubs had threatened to boycott the rest of the competition but, for now, organisers are still hoping next week’s round of fixtures will proceed as scheduled.
The French clubs have been asking for testing rules to be standardised across the European leagues following recent cancellations on both sides of the Channel. The Top 14 sides are used to their players being tested 72 hours before games, with three or more positive tests for a club leading to the match being called off. A different system is in place in England where Premiership club players are routinely tested on Mondays and contact tracing is more prevalent.
With infection rates rising again across Europe, a meeting of the EPCR Medical Advisory Group, comprising medical representatives of its shareholder leagues and unions, broke up without reaching a final resolution on Monday but it is understood that British players may well end up being tested closer to match day.
Contact tracing, matchday risk assessment, cross-border travel and protocol compliance were also discussed, with independent input from a Swiss-based physician and virologist, Dr Daniel Koch. Despite reports in France that Bayonne have withdrawn from their remaining two Challenge Cup pool games against Leicester and Zebre, EPCR insists it has received no official word from any participating club that it does not intend to fulfil its remaining fixtures.
The bigger picture remains a concern, however, with tighter lockdown restrictions now being put in place across Europe. If cross-border travel, even for professional athletes, becomes trickier it will make life even tougher for the organisers, with no room available within a packed calendar to reschedule the final two rounds of the preliminary stages.
Further widespread group stage cancellations would clearly threaten the integrity of the entire tournament, with defending champions Exeter already struggling to qualify for the knockout phase after a raft of positive tests forced the cancellation of their game in Toulouse before Christmas.
There are also growing calls for Premiership Rugby to scrap relegation this season on the grounds the bottom end of the table might be unfairly skewed by points awarded for unplayed games. A PRL spokesman insisted there had been “no votes taken or any decisions made” and said the outlook remained unclear: “It is a very difficult situation and people aren’t in control at the moment. The virus is in control and will dictate what happens”