European fixtures under threat as Premiership clubs fear players could get ‘trapped’ in France

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Three fixtures involving Gallagher Premiership teams travelling to France this weekend in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup are under threat due to current testing procedures in place for clubs arriving in France.

Newcastle Falcons were set to travel to play Biarritz in a Challenge Cup encounter on Friday. In the Champions Cup, Bath are due to take on La Rochelle on Saturday and Sale Sharks are scheduled to face Clermont on Sunday. 

However, with the French government insisting that teams isolate for 48 hours prior to these fixtures, and individuals liable to a 10-day isolation period in France if they test positive for Covid, clubs are wary of making the journey.

Speaking on Monday morning, Alex Sanderson, the Sale director of rugby, admitted that there is a concern that players could be “trapped in France”. He praised European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) for “moving heaven and earth” to keep the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions running under severe logistical challenges, which have included sorting Schengen visas for South African players. That has so far been achieved with the cooperation of the French government, who have allowed matches to continue with the exemption that they are “in pursuit of economic activity”.

However, with Sale having endured a Covid outbreak already this season, which forced their Premiership fixture against Newcastle to be cancelled, Sanderson explained that some of his players may not be able to return to England after this weekend’s game.

“The last hoop to jump through is this need to go and test over there 48 hours before the game,” he told this week’s edition of Rugby Union Weekly, the BBC podcast. “If you test positive on a PCR – and bear in mind that, if you have had Covid you can test positive for up to 90 days after – you’re trapped in France.
 
“In today’s environment, there is going to be three or four players from each club who, if they are tested right now, test positive on a PCR for those reasons I’ve said. Because they have had it in the last 90 days. It’s rife.
 
“As such, we’d be leaving these lads in France for weeks. If it was summertime and you were around Bordeaux or Biarritz, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But if you’re in a mid-century concrete hotel eating baguettes for 10 days, then it is going to be a pretty lonely place.
 
“I think it’s for the protection of the players, to be able to play the next week and in the Premiership the week after that, that we hopefully get some influence that we don’t have to jump through any more hoops.
 
“A week ago, we couldn’t get our Schengen visas through, so they’ve moved heaven and earth, really, to try and get this competition on to travel for ‘economic reasons’.,” Sanderson added.

“All that’s brilliant, it means we can take a squad. It’s just whether we can come back home with a squad because so many have tested positive, which is why we missed the Newcastle game. So all of those lads would potentially have to stay out there.”

On Saturday, in the wake of his team’s 44-8 loss to Northampton Saints, Dean Richards, the Newcastle director of rugby, echoed similar sentiments.

“It’s not as simple as EPCR just coming out and saying the games are going ahead,” said Richards. “There’s still a 48-hour isolation period for people entering France, and there’s been no clarity on what that means.

 “If anyone tests positive there’ll be a ten-day isolation period, and you’d have to assume that’ll be for virtually the whole squad if they’ve been on a plane and a bus together. To be honest I’m not sure if we can go.”

An EPCR statement on Monday read: “EPCR is continuing to work with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, as well as with the other leagues and unions, to seek improvements to the conditions which currently apply to UK clubs when they travel to France, and to French clubs returning from the UK.

“If the 48-hour isolation period happens to be maintained for matches in Round 3, clubs will be permitted to train during this time provided relevant COVID-19 protocols are observed.”

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