EPCR left with big decisions as Covid wreaks havoc on Champions Cup

Postponement of some matches and cancellation of others leave teams frustrated

Munster and Castres players shake hands after the final whistle during the Heineken Champions Cup match at Thomond Park, Limerick. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Munster and Castres players shake hands after the final whistle during the Heineken Champions Cup match at Thomond Park, Limerick. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The organisers of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, EPCR, will this morning wake up to an unenviable headache, with both tournaments probably needing radical surgery if they are to have any chance of being salvaged.

The cancellation of another two matches and the postponement of five more in the round two Champions Cup fixtures (along with two postponements in the Challenge Cup) means just 16 of the 24 matches have been played. At the same point a year ago, that figure was 20 of 24.

There also remains the distinct threat to the third and fourth round fixtures in January, which last season were cancelled en bloc. The EPCR’s only apparent scope for freeing up a weekend appears to be running off the Round of 16 ties as single knockout games rather than the proposed two-legged format, which would open up a free weekend on April 8th/9th/10th.

But stumbling blocks remain. As tournament rules did not account for the kind of scenario in which the French government imposed travel restrictions with the UK over the weekend, the postponement of five Champions Cup games was due to “exceptional circumstances”.

However, this has heightened the grievances of Leinster, Scarlets and the Ospreys whose opponents were awarded 28-0 bonus point wins due to positive Covid cases or enforced isolations in their ranks. Leinster intend appealing against EPCR’s decision to award Montpellier a walkover despite their preparedness to travel to France with a matchday squad which had successfully passed four rounds of PCR tests and five rounds of antigen tests.

Although they had more positive cases every day last week up until Thursday - which prompted the EPCR’s Match Risk Assessment Committee to deem the match unsafe - Leinster can argue that similar circumstances applied to Wasps on the eve of their game against Munster, which went ahead.

Bonus point

The other three Irish provinces were involved in the five matches which did take place. A Jack Carty drop goal in overtime secured a deserved bonus point for Connacht in their 29-23 defeat by unbeaten Premiership leaders Leicester at Welford Road in yesterday’s only Champions Cup game.

It completed an 18-point haul for the Connacht captain, whose form has to put him in contention for a recall to the Irish aquad in the Six Nations, all the more so with Joey Carbery sidelined and a doubt for the start of the tournament. The outcome leaves Connacht fourth in a distorted Pool B table on six points.

“In the end we take it,” said Andy Friend. “I thought Jack Carty and the team did very well to sneak that one out there’s an element of frustration there.”

Leicester replaced their front row when trailing 20-12 in the 51st minute, turned up the heat at scrum and maul time, got Finlay Bealham binned and scored 14 points in his absence.

“At 20-12 up with 20 minutes go that yellow card and the 14 points hurt us,” added Friend. “But that’s Leicester Tigers. They’ve got a strong set-piece and a strong scrum. They flexed their muscles there and we paid the penalty.”

The entire Munster squad will re-assemble together for the first time in two months tomorrow, having overcome the fraught fall-out form their abandoned URC trek to South Africa over a fortnight ago. They do so having backed up their inspired bonus win in Wasps with a more prosaic 19-13 win over Castres at Thomond Park last Saturday night to leave them second in Pool B.

“The important thing to note is that every club is going through this,” said Johann van Graan. “There are postponements. Clubs are unable to travel all through the sporting world. We are just thankful to be able to play in front of our home support, thankful we ground out a win.”

Good health

Looking ahead to the traditional St Stephen’s Day game against Leinster at Thomond Park, when Government restrictions mean only 5,000 of the 27,000 tickets can be used, he added: “We had a sold out stadium in a week’s time; we are now down to being able to host just 5,000. That is currently the way the world works.

“The most important thing to note is that we are talking about people’s health. Currently our whole squad is in good health.”

Ulster also sit second in Pool A after their bonus point win over Northampton at home last Friday and looking at the competition overall, Dan McFarland said: “It is sad, it was definitely sad last year that those two rounds were discarded. There’s so much in life that’s disrupted at the moment.

“This is the centre of our world but the centre of so many people’s worlds are disrupted on a week-to-week basis. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying. We’re subject to decision making from people who have huge amounts of responsibility around public health making complex social decisions.

“We have to go with the flow. We’ve all our opinions and the right to voice those opinions and to influence, if we think those opinions are valid, but ultimately we’ll plough through and God willing we’ll all get through safe.”

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