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Coronavirus: Ulster's Champions Cup quarter-final in Toulouse could face delay as French clubs meet over fears

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Ulster's head coach Dan McFarland

Ulster's head coach Dan McFarland

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ulster's head coach Dan McFarland

Ulster's Champions Cup quarter-final with Toulouse next month could yet be put on hold after a number of leading French clubs pushed to postpone rugby in the country due to the coronavirus outbreak at an emergency meeting held last night.

Dan McFarland's men are due to travel to the four-time European champions on April 5 but, after the French government moved to ban large gatherings until April 15, the Top 14 will now hold a general assembly in Toulouse next Monday to vote on the best way forward.

While yesterday saw football authorities take decisions to play Champions League, Europa League and Euro 2020 play-off fixtures without spectators, a number of rugby clubs throughout France have already voiced their objections to playing on behind closed doors, citing the potential economic impact of losing out on ticket sales, preferring that competitions would be put on ice.

It is understood that Toulouse - who look set to be without star scrum-half Antoine Dupont through injury against Ulster should the game go ahead as scheduled - would lose out on around €1 million if the last eight tie is played in an empty stadium, while Clermont, who host fellow Top 14 side Racing 92, are in a similar boat.

And the French publication Midi Olympique have reported that, while thinking is far from unanimous among the clubs, one suggestion involves pressing to move the knock-out fixtures in Europe to the weekend of April 17/18/19.

Five of the eight quarter-finals across both competitions involve French sides, although it is unclear how the EPCR would respond to such a proposal given that both the PRO14 and Premiership have full fixture lists that weekend and the disruption to travel plans already in place.

Ulster themselves have said they are in regular dialogue with competition organisers but have as yet had no steer on any changes and, across the board, will adhere to any government advice.

The picture is no more clear in the PRO14, where yesterday it was belatedly confirmed that, with Italy in lockdown, neither Benetton nor Zebre will be able to fulfill any of their fixtures this month.

With a ban on all sports in Italy until April 3, only in a best-case scenario will the two sides be able to fit their already postponed fixtures into the remaining free weekends left in the schedule.

With neither involved in European knockouts, theoretically both could play the three refixed games during the weekends set aside for the Champions and Challenge Cup quarters, semis and final.

Should the measures against the virus remain in place beyond the start of April, however, the only apparent alternative would be for league organisers to put their contingency plan of declaring the games 0-0 draws into action.

That would mean Ulster’s previously postponed game in Treviso — originally slated for February 29 — going unfulfilled and instead the province given two points.

Currently 20 points behind Leinster and seven ahead of Glasgow, any such decision would have far greater consequences in the opposite conference where the play-off race is considerably tighter, and Munster, who will now go six weeks without a fixture, had been due to face Benetton twice this month.

“The PRO14 Rugby will remain in contact with the FIR (Italian Union), Zebre Rugby Club, Benetton Rugby and World Rugby to monitor situation on a regular basis,” read a PRO14 statement released yesterday.

Belfast Telegraph