English clubs due to play in France this weekend have given conflicting messages over fulfilling their fixtures but European rugby chiefs were on Wednesday night cautiously optimistic the matches will go ahead as planned.
Newcastle, Sale and Bath are due to play in France but have expressed grave concerns over what they consider to be prohibitive travel restrictions. They would need to isolate for 48 hours on arrival and produce a negative test before leaving quarantine, raising the prospect of players or staff being stranded for 10 days.
Organisers of the Champions and Challenge Cups have been working with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby in the hope of gaining confirmation that the French government’s rules would be relaxed in time for the three fixtures to take place.
Even though confirmation had not arrived Sale expressed confidence their match at Clermont would go ahead on Sunday but Bath were adamant they would not travel to La Rochelle on Saturday without the requisite guarantees. Newcastle are planning for Friday’s match at Biarritz to go ahead and will travel that morning unless told otherwise.
Despite the confusion, Sale’s confidence does chime with that of European Professional Club Rugby. Sale are due to travel on Saturday, returning on Sunday and their director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, struck a positive tone, revealing his South African players are also set to be granted the necessary visas to enter France.
“We’re going, that’s what I’ve been informed,” said Sanderson. “My understanding is we don’t have to stay the 48 hours or PCR test, which was the risk because people would probably get trapped in France. We might still need a queen’s seal but all the indications are that it’s happening.”
Bath’s director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, was more circumspect, insisting that if the 48-hour isolation period remains in place, his side will be staying put, mindful of how Munster, the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues were all recently stuck in South Africa.
“It’s more about the testing in country. If you have to isolate for 48 hours it’s because you have to test out of it or stay isolating for 10 days,” he said. “That’s absolutely not a condition by which we’d travel to France, as you can be stuck there. We still don’t have absolute clarity on what we have to do. We hope to hear very soon about what’s required. I know EPCR are working hard on it.”
Ultimately, the key issue appears to be when, rather than if, the French government announces a relaxation of its travel restrictions with the UK. Already the English clubs have been granted an exemption to travel to France as they are deemed to be “in pursuit of economic activity” and it has been widely reported the restrictions are set to be relaxed. It is unclear whether the necessary changes will come into force in time for this weekend’s fixtures, however.
Meanwhile, Manu Tuilagi is expected to seek release from England’s pre-Six Nations training camp in Brighton in order to prove his fitness with Sale six days before the competition starts.
Eddie Jones is set to name his squad for the Six Nations next Tuesday and England will convene on 24 January on the south coast. But Tuilagi, who has not appeared since sustaining a hamstring injury against South Africa in November, wants to prove his fitness against his old club, Leicester, later that week.
“I need to speak to Eddie about this,” said Sanderson. “Eddie has first got to release him to play that game and I know [Manu] doesn’t want to go in without playing that game. I spoke to him today in the corridor and he said we’ll see how I feel after that game. Eddie is another person who said, look we’re going to manage him through this mentally and physically. He’s got to be right, feel like he’s right and that’ll be the discussion after that Leicester match.”