Fresh doubts over whether the Six Nations will go ahead as scheduled have emerged with Brexit red tape presenting a stumbling block to the tournament. Organisers have revealed they are still waiting on approval from the French government over travel exemptions – required with the UK no longer part of the European Union – 10 days before the tournament begins.
After the French authorities updated its regulations this week, all travellers from non-EU countries are subject to mandatory seven-day quarantine, including French citizens. That threatens France following their match at Twickenham as well trips to Paris for Scotland and Wales.
Six Nations organisers said on Wednesday that they are confident of receiving exemption from the French government, but there have been recent examples of teams having to postpone matches, including two European handball fixtures, because of the tighter border controls.
Despite their optimism, contingency plans for the tournament have been explored. Organisers are determined to avoid cancelling matches, favouring postponement instead, but using fallow weeks raises problems over player release and extending the tournament is fraught with difficulty. That France play England on 13 March and Wales seven days later on the tournament’s final weekend could be a huge problem.
The French government is increasingly concerned by the English variant of Covid-19, and prevented clubs taking part in the latest rounds of two European competitions.
The French sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, has demanded further health guarantees before giving approval for Les Bleus to play against UK countries and while Six Nations organisers are confident their reinforced protocols – including twice-weekly testing – will allay those concerns it remains to be seen whether they are sufficient to guarantee travel exemption.
“We are in constant dialogue with the French government through the [French federation],” said the Six Nations chief executive, Ben Morel. “We’ve provided all our protocols, which have been considered extremely robust, and we are seeking some clarification on the specific rules on quarantine exemptions. That’s on entry from the UK, whether it’s re-entry for a French team or other unions.
“The one thing that needs to be clarified is precise travel exemption between the non-EU and French territory. That affects matches a bit further along in the schedule. But we are confident we will get the right authorisation to proceed. We are confident in our ability to stage the matches at the right time, it’s more what logistical gymnastics we need to adapt to.”
Morel also confirmed the idea of hosting the tournament in one location has been briefly discussed, but never seriously entertained. Last weekend the Racing 92 owner, Jacky Lorenzetti, offered the use of La Défense Arena in Paris, but Morel believes players and staff are safer in biosecure bubbles at their training bases.
“We think our protocols are better suited in keeping the unions where they are in their international training bases with charter flights and controlled travel. There are some stadium sponsor commitments relevant to each of the unions, which is also a consideration, but fundamentally our protocols are robust for the Six Nations to continue.”
Dates for the women’s Six Nations are expected to be confirmed next week, with a slot in early spring most likely. Morel said organisers have not found a title sponsor nor a UK broadcaster for the championship, but hopes to resolve both issues. He also said the women’s Six Nations may take place at a different time of year to the men’s on a permanent basis, as revealed by the Guardian last April. “I’m a strong believer that the specific window would enhance and give appropriate visibility.”