British clubs set to join forces to boycott European fixtures over strict Covid rules
Europe's top rugby competitions could be set for further disruption amid fears clubs from England and Wales will unite to boycott upcoming fixtures in France.
The French government recently granted sports exemptions to allow teams from the United Kingdom to cross their borders having previously restricted most travel between the two countries.
However, players and staff are still expected to observe a 48-hour quarantine period upon entering France, adding further financial and logistical complications for travelling teams.
Newcastle are scheduled to face Biarritz in the Challenge Cup on Friday evening before Bath and Sale are due to take on La Rochelle and Clermont Auvergne in the Champions Cup on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Scarlets are set to face Bordeaux in the Champions Cup on Sunday but are also believed to be considering joining the boycott.
The Welsh outfit have already suffered as a result of Covid restrictions this season, having been forced to forfeit a December fixture against Bristol Bears after some of their players were forced to isolate in South Africa.
Under France's current Covid-19 protocols, that means the Falcons would need to arrive in Biarritz on Tuesday in order to allow for a 48-hour isolation and PCR testing for the entire squad before their Friday fixture.
Not only that, but French law dictates any player who returns a positive test would then need to isolate for 10 days, risking a similar saga to when a raft of United Rugby Championship players were stranded in South Africa.
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It's estimated that the cost of a European away trip is around £75,000, but it's understood the additional cost of extra days isolating prior to fixtures could prove unfeasible for clubs.
European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) told the Daily Mirror it was "continuing to work with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby to seek improvements to the conditions which currently apply to UK clubs when they travel to France, and to French clubs returning from the UK.
"If the 48-hour isolation period happens to be maintained for matches in Round 3, clubs will be permitted to train during this time provided relevant Covid-19 protocols are observed."
There are further complications for Sale and Bath, each of whom have a contingent of South African players, who would require separate Schengen visas in order to enter France.
The combination of potential obstacles has made British clubs hesitant to travel unless restrictions are eased.
Forfeiting fixtures in either competition results in an automatic 28-0 defeat, though it's understood this could be acceptable if the postponed fixtures from December awarded points in the opposite direction, effectively evening up the table tally.
“We’re not sure where we stand with it all, and to be honest I’m not sure if we can go,” said Newcastle director of rugby Dean Ryan when asked about his side's upcoming fixtures in France.
“There has so far been no relaxation from the French government regarding the 48-hour isolation requirement, and it’s very much up in the air. We just don’t know where we stand.
“We’ve heard nothing from EPCR other than a positive email which doesn’t actually clarify anything. There’s no clarity on isolation, no clarity on the testing, and all they’ve said is from the competition point of view it’s game on. But that’s not what the French government have said so far, and we just don’t know where we stand.
“The situation is compounded by having back-to-back games out in France, and there’s every chance we’ll go out there and end up living in France for the next three or four weeks. That might not sound bad to some people, but I don’t think they’ll be sending red wine and foie gras to our quarantine hotel room!”
The Falcons play Biarritz in Round 3 of the Challenge Cup and are set to visit Toulon the following Saturday (Jan. 22), but it's understood the cost of remaining in France between fixtures is too high.
Both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup were already hit by delays in December when seven games involving French and English clubs had to be postponed amid the Omicron variant spread.
French authorities have since demonstrated a willingness for games to go ahead, but it's now believed the aforementioned UK clubs won't make the trip without assurances over bypassing Covid-19 protocols.