Another day, another massive headache for rugby union’s beleaguered administrators. If you think the late postponement of Sunday’s France v Scotland game in the Six Nations is no big deal, welcome to the notorious labyrinth of club v country fixture scheduling. Imagine the Brexit withdrawal document with more strings attached and the widespread ramifications might become slightly clearer.
Simply playing it next week, when the teams would otherwise be resting up for the tournament’s final two weekends, is not feasible. That faithful old bloodhound of a clause, regulation 9, determines when club players can or cannot be called up for international duty and next week is a club window, with up to 10 Scotland players potentially unavailable. The next international slot following the Six Nations is July, when the British & Irish Lions are supposed to be touring. The one after that is in the autumn when Scotland already have three successive home Tests in the diary starting against Australia on 6 November.
What a mess, with Gregor Townsend rightly stressing he wants his full team out. The July option might be theoretically do-able if this summer’s Lions tour is abandoned but that now seems unlikely. The only certainty is that, for the second successive year, the Guinness Six Nations championship will have its grand finale diluted. Next month’s annual ‘Super Saturday’ climax will have to be downgraded to ‘Maybe Saturday’.
It leaves everyone – players, coaches, fans, the lot – in limbo. Even if France were to win their other remaining games against England and Wales they would still be left frustratingly short of un grand chelem. As last year, when Covid-19 also caused a seven month delay in identifying the champions, it sucks out much of the competition’s momentum and anticipation and raises more uncomfortable organisational questions.
In this case no one bar the squeaky-clean Scots comes out looking too flash. Declining to shift from the original Six Nations dates to the late spring, when the infection risk across Europe would have been lower, was always a slight gamble and it has now spectacularly backfired. So, too, has the decision not to award a “win” to the innocent party in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak in another team’s camp. With no spare weekends available, it risked precisely the impasse that has now arisen.
And what about the strong mutterings that, conceivably, the French outbreak was the result of a senior member of the management team breaking the “team bubble” prior to the Ireland game rather than any random stroke of bad luck? The French Federation president, Bernard Laporte, has said he is keen to uncover the truth but added: “I find it hard to imagine there was a fault.” Not the most rigorous start point from which to launch a proper investigation.
If someone did knowingly sneak out it will also have echoes of the late scrapping of the Barbarians v England fixture last year, which subsequently led to disciplinary sanctions against those involved. No expense has been spared in creating tight national team “bubbles” and Laporte himself was particularly bullish in January. “There has been a lot of organisation, a lot of foresight, with a Covid manager in each nation,’ he stressed. “I repeat, it worked well in the autumn, it will work well during this Six Nations time.”
Wishful thinking, sadly. Speculation about the original source of the 12 positive tests among France’s playing squad – the latest is understood to be the giant prop Uini Atonio – will now intensify further and the Six Nations committee, already lacking any crowds, now finds itself on uncomfortable ground. The patience of sponsors and broadcasters has already been tried over the past year and rugby’s recurring inability to organise a piss-up even in a carefully sanitised brewery cannot be brushed off as one of those things indefinitely.
If there is a silver lining it can only be the hope that this latest shambles finally concentrates everyone’s minds. A quarter of a century on from the game turning professional, there is still no unified sense of purpose or a clear road map of how the whole game sells itself. Even the sale of a slice of the Six Nations commercial rights to the private equity firm CVC has still not had a drum roll announcement because, it is said, there is natural unease about unveiling a big deal whilst simultaneously seeking government funding for other parts of the game.
Rugby wants its money-stuffed cake and it also wants to eat it. What the France-Scotland postponement does do, though, is add further fuel to Wales’s game with England this weekend. Neither nation has yet played France and, psychologically, may now feel more optimistic when they do. Les Bleus may still sit atop the championship table but someone else will be there on Monday morning.