Six Nations organisers are facing calls to consider moving Scotland and Wales home games to England to avoid behind-closed-doors matches if Covid-19 restrictions remain.
Crowds for sporting events in Wales have been banned since Boxing Day while Scotland has limited sporting spectators to 500 in regulations to help restrict the spread of the omicron variant.
Six Nations organisers held talks with the governments and unions on Tuesday and have explored contingency plans for moving some matches behind closed doors.
This is a prospect fiercely opposed across the rugby spectrum. Lions fly-half Dan Biggar last week said that Six Nations matches without spectators would be a “huge, huge step backwards” while former Scotland head coach Sir Ian McGeechan on Tuesday described last year’s crowd-free championship as a “soulless affair”.
With next to no space in a congested calendar, Telegraph Sport understands that it is highly unlikely that any fixtures could be delayed so that full houses can return. An alternative would be moving some matches to England, where there are no restrictions on crowds beyond showing Covid passes. Both the Irish and French governments have set a limit of 5,000 spectators at sporting events.
The Scottish and Welsh Rugby Unions would make the final decision on the location of their home matches but McGeechan believes going across the English border should be an option on the table. “The possibility must surely be explored,” McGeechan writes for Telegraph Sport. “As a player, given the choice of playing in an empty stadium at Murrayfield or a full house of Scots just over the border, I know which I’d have chosen. For Scotland and Wales the possibility of playing at St James’ Park or the Ricoh Arena or some other venue would surely be preferable both from a sporting and a financial perspective? And there are currently no legal restrictions preventing fans from crossing the border.”
McGeechan’s call was echoed by Julian Knight MP, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, who said sport should be encouraged to make sure costs are covered. “I hope that we don’t come to a situation where the Six Nations are being played behind closed doors – all possibilities must be looked at in order to try and ensure that they are still played with crowds, to get atmosphere going and also to get the revenue in,” Knight said. “We can’t continue to live like this where we are in a situation where we put life on hold. It’s just not right.”
Six Nations organisers hope to have a rough road map by the end of the week, not withstanding much is outside of their control. While they are responsible for determining the standardised Covid-19 protocols that all teams have to abide by, they are at the mercy of their domestic governments with regards to crowds. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, has said the current Covid regulations would remain in place until at least Jan 17 but much is likely to depend on the data for hospitalisations following the Christmas and New Year period.
After full houses for international matches only returned after a near 18 month-absence in the autumn, many unions would face a severe financial blow if crowds are kept away once again. The Welsh Rugby Union took a £22 million hit to revenues because of the pandemic according to its last financial accounts and it could ill-afford a similar loss.
Switching matches to England would not come without considerable logistical challenges, particularly with little over four weeks’ notice. The Rugby Football Union was not prepared to comment on Tuesday night, but its council is understood to regret the decision not to pursue the opportunity to host the Lions series against South Africa last summer.
The challenge of staging the next round of Champions Cup next weekend seems steep enough.
European Professional Club Rugby, organiser of the Champions Cup, is hoping to gain travel exemptions for clubs to send teams to France who banned non-essential travel from the UK last month, which prompted a host of matches to be postponed.
Yet Sale Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson on Tuesday insisted his team would not be able to field a competitive side against Clermont Auvergne on Jan 16 without his South African players who require an additional visa to play in France. “It’s a mockery of the cup then, isn’t it?” Sanderson said. “We’re in it to play the best teams with our best team. So no, I wouldn’t even consider taking a second team to Clermont to get beaten up.
“I do think [the tournament] is in trouble, not through its own fault. There is no space in the season to reschedule these games. There is none so how do you continue with the tournament in its old structure? I can’t see how you can if we can’t field our best team to come to France or the game isn’t played.”
State of play: Restrictions currently in place for fans and players – and Six Nations games affected
By Kate Rowan and Ben Coles
Games: Feb 26 v Wales, Mar 12 v Ireland
Current restrictions on players: None
Current restrictions on fans: No limits, but attendees will be required to show proof of either double vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result within 48 hours of the event
Games: Feb 6 v Italy, Feb 12 v Ireland, Mar 19 v England
Current restrictions on players: All professional sports athletes in France now must be double-vaccinated. However, it is yet to be clarified if this will apply to visiting individuals from other nations. The French Sports Ministry said last week a decision would be made ‘within days’ on how the new rules will affect non-French teams competing in the country.
Current restrictions on fans: Capped at 5,000 spectators at outdoor sporting events. A Covid passport is required to enter.
Games: Feb 5 v Wales, Feb 27 v Italy, Mar 19 v Scotland
Current restrictions on players: Players must take the same precautions as members of the public when entering the country from both the UK and European Union countries such as France and Italy. A PCR or supervised antigen test must be done to gain entry to the Republic of Ireland. Unvaccinated players could gain entry with proof of a PCR test. Daily lateral flow testing is required after arrival.
Current restrictions on fans: Capped at 5,000 spectators at outdoor sporting events. This is due to be reviewed by the Irish government at the end of January.
Games: Feb 13 v England, Mar 12 v Scotland
Current restrictions on players: Any athlete involved in outdoor team sport must receive their first vaccine by Jan 6. A “Green Pass” is then issued to the player 14 days after their first vaccination and this will be required to play. For players entering Italy, double-jabbed are exempt from quarantine but must wear a face mask for up to a week after arrival.
Current restrictions on fans: In order to enter fans must also be in possession of a “Green Pass” showing proof of vaccination. Italy is yet to limit the attendances at sporting events.
Games: Feb 5 v England, Feb 26 v France
Current restrictions on players: None
Current restrictions on fans: Capped at 500 spectators allowed at outdoor events with restrictions to be reviewed on Jan 16
Games: Feb 12 v Scotland, Mar 11 v France, Mar 19 v Italy
Current restrictions on players: None
Current restrictions on fans: Capped at 50 spectators allowed at outdoor events. Covid passes required to gain entry, with guidelines reviewed on a weekly basis.