Just as it was last March, rugby is on the verge of shutdown, as fears over cross-border travel rapidly grow in line with the continued worrying spread of Covid-19.
The Christmas period was always likely to be easier to manage given the number of local derbies, but the postponement of Munster’s St Stephen’s Day clash with Leinster offered a sobering reminder that every fixtures is vulnerable to the virus’s impact.
As we enter what is traditionally the busiest period of the year, when travel between countries becomes a weekly occurrence, the sport finds itself in another difficult position.
Confirmation that the upcoming two rounds of the Champions Cup are to be postponed is due Monday, and the ramifications will have a major knock-on effect for all tournaments.
EPCR are due to hold talks today with LNR, who represent the French clubs, amidst growing concerns that the French government are set to withdraw their teams from the final two rounds of European action.
France’s worries stem from the UK variant of Covid-19, which Bayonne claimed to have contracted on a recent Challenge Cup trip to Leicester. As a result, the LNR want more stringent testing procedures put in place, and although EPCR are working hard on that front, disruptions look inevitable.
All four Irish provinces are due to be in Champions Cup action over the next fortnight, and although only Leinster and Munster harbour realistic ambitions of advancing to the knockout stages, Connacht and Ulster could end up in the Challenge Cup.
The condensed nature of the season will make it difficult to re-fix games, and as such a revised format may be needed in order for the knockout phase to take place in April and May.
Such is the messy nature of the domestic season, apart from rescheduled games, the PRO14 have not issued any fixtures beyond last weekend’s round.
Ordinarily, the league would be on a two-week break now, but if the Champions Cup is put on ice, it is possible that the PRO14 will look to make use of this window and play some postponed games.
That means Munster could host Leinster, potentially on the weekend of January 22/23. As the days go by, the introduction of the Rainbow Cup in April, which sees South Africa’s big teams making up a cross-hemisphere PRO16, looks increasingly fanciful.
Despite suggestions that the Six Nations would be moved to later in the year, officials are standing by their assertion that the tournament will begin on February 6.
It is understood that Covid-19 protocols have been reinforced since the conclusion of last year’s tournament and the Autumn Nations Cup. But whether that will be enough to get the French on board remains to be seen.
France are not due to travel to the UK until round four against England, by which stage the situation may have improved.
The prospect of games taking place behind closed doors looks to be a foregone conclusion, but with TV revenue at stake, every effort will be made to get the Six Nations up and running.
Much of that will depend on how long the French government ban their teams from playing against British sides.
WOMEN’S SIX NATIONS
Ireland spent the weekend in their first training camp of the year, in preparation for a Six Nations campaign that looks likely to be postponed until April/May.
Hopes of the women’s tournament running alongside their male counterparts is complicated by the majority of players being amateur.
Back in October, Ireland were unable to travel to France for a re-fixed Six Nations clash after they were denied a special dispensation from the Government as they do not fall under the ‘elite’ category.
Further scheduling problems are inevitable as Ireland are one of the teams also awaiting a date for their crucial World Cup qualifier.
U-20S SIX NATIONS
The unions are keen for the tournament to take place, but the U-20s fall into the same category as the women’s Six Nations.
Therefore, the tournament could also be postponed until April/May at the earliest, but the summer may be a more viable option in the absence of a Junior World Cup.
The Lions committee, along with their South African counterparts, will be even more concerned by the latest developments in European rugby ahead of their final decision on this summer’s tour, which is due in the coming weeks.