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Ruaidhri O'Connor

The show must go on as Ireland and provinces reside in state of limbo over rugby season uncertainty

Ruaidhri O'Connor


 

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Left hanging: Ireland are due to be in Six Nations action early next month

Left hanging: Ireland are due to be in Six Nations action early next month

�INPHO/James Crombie

Left hanging: Ireland are due to be in Six Nations action early next month

Less than 90 minutes after the country's government instructed teams to call a halt to the Heineken Champions Cup, the French federation released Les Bleus' squad for the Six Nations that kicks off in less than a month's time.

The show, it seems, must go on.

The Top 14 were quick to fill the void left by the 'temporary suspension' of European competition as organisers fixed four matches called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, while the English Premiership took a different tack and decided to take a break for two weekends.

The Guinness PRO14?

Well, there was still no official word from the Irish provinces' league, but it is understood they are looking to fill the two weekends with fixtures and that Munster's postponed meeting with Leinster is set to take place on Saturday-week at Thomond Park.

As it stands, the league has no fixtures scheduled beyond Round 13 which took place last weekend and a couple of back fixtures which have been inked in for the end of the month and the first weekend of the Six Nations.

Despite the French government's decision that clubs from that country cannot play against English sides for the month of January, Six Nations organisers are still proceeding with plans for the tournament to kick off as scheduled.

Administrators will meet French officials today to outline why they believe the competition can be run safely.

They will point to the successful completion of the autumn tournament and the Autumn Nations Cup which took place amidst increased restrictions across Europe, while the fact France will not meet a team from the United Kingdom until round three will be emphasised.

Fabien Galthie's side are in Dublin in round two, however, and with the UK variant now prevalent in Ireland there is increased risk involved in that game now.

Uncertainty abounds, but for Ireland's head coach Andy Farrell there is a desire for his players to play at least one meaningful game before the squad is announced in the last week of January.

Munster versus Leinster on January 23 would do nicely, but Ulster have no back matches to play and Connacht's games have been scheduled for the end of this month and the start of February.

The league was constrained by the fact that EPCR could not suspend its tournaments until it was told to do so as organisers believed that they could play both rounds safely.

Eventually, the government communique came and the announcement followed at 5.30pm yesterday and now the challenge is to logistically pull off a round of games at such short notice.

The provinces are due to play a pair of 'A' fixtures this weekend and may look to play anyone who is short on game-time in those if the league can't go ahead.

It's about making the best of a difficult situation.

For the Champions Cup organisers, the challenge is to finish the competition over the four weekends available to them in April and May.

The most likely solution would see the top eight teams from Pools A and B going into a round of 16 with the winners progressing to a one-off quarter-final.

Although that would see Ulster and Connacht eliminated from the tournament, they will get a second bit of the cherry in the Challenge Cup with the bottom eight clubs from the Champions Cup joining the top eight sides in that tournament in a round of 16.

April, however, feels a long way away. For now, rugby administrators' focus is on keeping the show on the road in the face of rising case numbers and new variant strains.

• The Women's Six Nations is set to be postponed.

Tournament organisers have been forced to concede defeat in attempts to stage the competition in its traditional February and March window, with April and May now pencilled in as an alternative.

Belfast Telegraph


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