Covid cancellation means inter-provincial clashes moved to Six Nations window
Ulster will have to reschedule two inter-provincial derbies during the Six Nations after their Covid-19 outbreak forced the postponement of Saturday’s clash with Leinster at Kingspan Stadium.
The two sides were due to meet in Belfast on New Year’s Day in the United Rugby Championship but, after originally stating that the game was in doubt, Ulster revealed yesterday evening that the game is off.
That’s back-to-back derby dates that the province have seen postponed after their Boxing Day fixture against Connacht was called off when they returned a large number of cases in their playing staff last week.
Head coach Dan McFarland took the proactive approach of limiting the number of players in training to try and curtail the spread of the virus but, despite that, the fixture is still off alongside the games between Dragons and Cardiff, and Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors.
It is understood that while players have been exhibiting, at worst, very mild symptoms, Ulster have recorded further positive tests this week after last week’s initial outbreak and that is what forced the postponement.
“The URC Medical Advisory Group has liaised with the medical teams at Cardiff, Dragons, Glasgow Warriors, Ulster and their respective health authorities and deemed that these fixtures cannot go ahead as scheduled,” read the URC’s statement.
“The United Rugby Championship will now consider available dates to reschedule these games.”
Ulster’s own statement continued: “Ticket holders for the Ulster v Leinster game are advised that their tickets remain valid for the rescheduled fixture, and the Ulster Rugby Ticket Office will be in touch with options once the new date has been confirmed.”
Ulster now face having to take on their two inter-provincial rivals without their international contingent as the only available dates to reschedule the games are during the Six Nations.
While that will be a benefit for the re-arranged Leinster game as their opponents will more than likely be contributing the majority of their first-choice players to the Ireland panel, it will make the Connacht game a much trickier proposition than it would have been if it was played last week.
Financially, calling off the Leinster game is a significant blow to the Ulster coffers as it was already sold out, while there was hope that the Boxing Day fixture would also be full capacity after walk-up ticket sales.
While many fans will attend the rescheduled fixture due to Ulster leaving the tickets valid for it, there will undoubtedly be some asking for refunds and reselling those tickets for a watered-down product during the Six Nations could prove a difficult task for the province, while they can’t even predict what Covid restrictions might be placed on crowd numbers by the time the re-arranged fixtures come.
Even looking shorter-term, providing Ulster can quell the outbreak in time to put out a team for next week’s derby against Munster at Thomond Park, their lack of preparation due to isolation means they will be at a significant disadvantage to their rivals.
The postponement certainly doesn’t suit Leinster either as they are facing the prospect of not having played a game in at least five weeks following this latest development.
Leo Cullen’s men have not played since their Heineken Champions Cup win over Bath on December 11, and with next week’s game against South African outfit the Lions also shelved, Leinster are not due back in action until their European meeting with Montpellier on January 16.
There is likely to be plenty of sympathy within Leinster ranks towards Ulster, as they too have had their Covid-related issues in recent weeks.
However, Leinster’s lengthy spell without a competitive game throws up several headaches for boss Cullen and his backroom staff.
The European tie against Montpellier is just over two weeks away, but with the Top 14 also ravaged by Covid over Christmas, these are nervy times for everyone involved in professional rugby.
Leinster had received the all-clear to resume training following their recent circuit breaker, but the lack of meaningful action is a major concern as they scramble to ensure they make the knockout stages of Europe after the controversy that arose following the 28-0 win that was awarded to Montpellier amid the Blues’ own Covid issues.