Irish rugby gets huge boost as restrictions lift but clouds build over European game

Legal action threatened by French clubs over decision to award two walkovers in final round of pool games

Confirmation from Taoiseach Micheál Martin that restrictions on crowds at outdoor and indoor sports events have been lifted from Saturday morning will be a timely relief to the IRFU and various stakeholders in Irish rugby.

The first of Ireland's three Six Nations games at the Aviva Stadium is in a fortnight's time and a capacity crowd of over 50,000 will generate gate receipts alone in the region of €5 million.

The union had already issued the match tickets to the clubs, provinces and normal outlets, and with an estimated 8,000 Welsh fans due to travel, there will also be a huge boon to the hospitality industry over those three weekends.

More immediately, Munster will now increase the attendance at Sunday's Heineken Champions Cup match against Wasps at Thomond Park (kick-off 3.15pm) from 5,000 to 16,000.

“The capacity will be capped at this figure due to the short turnaround and limited operations in place for Sunday’s game,” the province explained in a statement.

Season-ticket holders and Munster Rugby Supporters Club members will be prioritised, while a limited number of general tickets will also be available online from 1pm on Saturday through ticketmaster.ie.

That’s the good news.

The odds were always against the final two rounds in the pool stages being completed without hiccups, or more to the point without further cancellations and controversy. And so a final round that already lacked the drama involved in the previous format of six-team pools has potentially wrought significant damage to the Heineken Champions Cup after threats of legal action by defending champions Toulouse and the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR).

This follows the cancellation of Toulouse’s final game at home to Cardiff, with the latter being awarded a 28-0 bonus-point win, a decision which has kicked the hornet’s next.

In echoes of Leinster’s anger at the decision to award Montpellier a walkover in round two, competition organisers European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) awarded Cardiff a walkover after their independent Match Risk Assessment Committee, made up of medical doctors from their medical advisory group as well as independent medical specialists, deemed the risk of further infection too great and “regrettably” cancelled the fixture. This followed a “significant” number of positive Covid results – believed to be 20 – in the Toulouse squad.

Rene Bouscatel, president of the LNR and a former president of Toulouse, vowed: “I have decided to convene an LNR board of directors’ meeting as a matter of urgency to discuss the follow-up, including legal action, to be taken on this decision.”

This raises the spectre of the LNR, key shareholders and board members of the EPCR, taking action against the EPCR, which could do irreparable damage to the organisation.

Also in Pool B, Leicester were awarded a 28-0 bonus-point win over Bordeaux-Begles after the French club were unable to fulfil the fixture following an outbreak of Covid in their ranks.

The two cancellations further diluted the Pool B finale, although it did ensure that Connacht have qualified for the knock-out stages for the first time ever; a notable achievement by Andy Friend and his squad.

Despite missing half a dozen props and also without the in-form Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki, Friend has vowed that Connacht are fully focused on winning against Stade Francais in Paris on Sunday (kick-off 1pm Irish time).

Either way, Connacht look likely to finish fifth in Pool B, and presuming Leinster hold on to fourth in Pool A, then the two Irish sides would meet in the two-legged Round of 16 on the second and third weekends in April. That would be quite something.

Leinster would have designs on overtaking one or more of the three sides above them in Pool A, and to that end would probably require a bonus-point win against Bath in the Rec on Saturday (kick-off 1pm).

Johnny Sexton starts, with Luke McGrath and Robbie Henshaw also restored, while Michael Ala'alatoa replaces the injured Tadhg Furlong, although Leo Cullen was upbeat about the prospects of Furlong and James Ryan facing Wales.

Ulster are best placed of the Irish quartet. A win over Clermont at home on Saturday (kick-off 5.30) would ensure a top-two finish, and with that a guaranteed home quarter-final should they reach the last eight.

In what could be a high-scoring game this evening’s tie – JJ Hanrahan starts while curiously Damian Penaud has been left on the bench – will see a first return to Belfast for former head coach Jono Gibbes, who is rumoured to have secured Ulster defence coach Jared Payne from next season onwards.