As expected, the French Rugby Federation’s (FFR) internal investigation into the outbreak of Covid-19 within the French squad and which caused the postponement of their game against Scotland last Sunday has exonerated head coach Fabien Galthié, while also maintaining he was not ‘patient zero’.
It was always likely that the FFR's investigation, carried out at the request of the French minister for sport, Roxana Maracineanu, would not implicate Galthié, who attended an espoirs match at the Stade Jean-Bouin where his son was playing for Colomiers against Stade Francais the day after Les Bleus' round one win over Italy in Rome. And so it has come to pass.
Professor Roger Salamon, president of the medical commission of the FFR, told the RTL radio station: "I write it at the start of my report: whatever one might think about it, what he [Galthié] did has fact, and he had the right to do so. There was no particular risk. He's not patient zero. It's virologically obvious, from the distance he went to see his son and the distance from which there were the first cases. I'm not saying this to defend him, he doesn't need to be defended. I say this because it is the truth."
The infamous ‘patient zero’, whom the FFR vice-president Serge Simon had declared was their physical trainer, now turns out to have been one of the players from the French Sevens team who had entered the French base in Marcoussis to train with the senior team, and who apparently tested negative but was in an incubation period.
The report has also cleared the French management of all responsibility.
On Wednesday morning, Professor Eric Caumes, who participated in the drafting of the report, told RMC Sport: “The sanitary protocol was respected and the conditions of entry and exit in the bubble were also respected. Unfortunately, the bubble is not foolproof.
"Being tested negative before entering the bubble is not a guarantee of 100 per cent efficiency, as we have seen during this episode of the XV of France, but also in other circumstances and other sports. If you want to have the most airtight sanitary bubble possible, there are no other possibilities than to enforce a quarantine of 14 days before entering it."
Professor Caumes even had a dig at the French ministry of sport when adding: “I even wonder why this report was commissioned. There was no investigation to find out how Emmanuel Macron caught the Covid.
“This is one of the infallible things, very difficult to control. It will serve as a lesson. If you want a completely sealed bubble, you have to impose a quarantine of 14 days before entering it and once you are there, you do not leave it. But still this is only possible for short-term competitions, this is not possible for long duration competitions.”
The minister for sport will study the report and discuss its findings at cabinet level and with president Macron on Wednesday evening, before meeting FFR president Bernard Laporte on Thursday.
After that meeting, she is expected to make a statement, declaring the government is satisfied with the report, ask for additional information or decide on possible sanctions. In all likelihood, she will choose the first.
Hence the punishments arising out of this episode, termed Bubblegate, are in stark contrast to previous breaches of bio-secure bubbles and/or outbreaks of Covid-19 in international squads.
Josh Adams, for example, was suspended for two weeks by the Welsh management for attending a gender reveal gathering with his immediate family and issued a public apology.
After two separate outings by groups of 12 and 10 of its players, the Barbarians game against England last November was cancelled, costing the English RFU €1.15 million as it had to reimburse the 30,000 tickets sold for the match, and heaping much opprobrium on the players concerned.
An outbreak of Covid-19 in the Fijian camp also led to the cancellation of its three pool games in the Autumn Nations Cup against France, Scotland and Italy, and in each instance a 28-0 was awarded to their opponents.
Despite calls for the Six Nations to similarly award Scotland a 28-0 win in light of last Sunday's game, this was never likely given the desire to preserve the, eh, integrity of the tournament, however damaged it has been by this episode.
But bear in mind allegations of other breaches of their bio-secure bubble within the French squad, such as a late-night party to celebrate their win over Ireland, while some players left their hotel in Rome to have some waffles. The French appear to have been somewhat laissez-faire in their approach, and not in any way remorseful or apologetic.
In fact, team manager Raphael Ibanez even went so far as to suggest the virus might initially have been contracted during their weekend in Ireland for their round two win at the Aviva Stadium. Recalling too how French medics had erroneously, and disgustingly, spoken publicly about Johnny Sexton’s concussion cases (albeit repeated liberally in the Irish media), the French haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory off the field, whatever about on it.
Bear in mind too that this follows outbreaks of Covid-19 in the French under-20s, men’s Sevens and women’s squads.
Nor has there been a solitary example of mea culpa or an apology for the damage that has been done to the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, for even if the France-Scotland game is rearranged for Friday, March 25th, the tournament has been denied its grand finale (and a potential Grand Slam shoot-out between France and Wales in Paris) on March 20th, so-called Super Saturday.
The episode has caused deep embarrassment and shame within French rugby and sporting circles, and even though the ex-Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has declared his support for Laporte and Galthié while preferring to describe it as Galthié Gate, he has also said: “Fabien, the best is to confess and apologise.”
There is seemingly little chance of that, but although Laporte and the FFR are understandably determined to keep Galthié in situ until the 2023 World Cup after overseeing a rejuvenation in the fortune of Les Bleus, Galthié has to have been damaged by this affair publicly, and possibly within the squad too.
After all, it will henceforth be harder for him to look his players in the eye and say all for one, one for all, and Laporte’s veiled threats that any more leaks from inside the French camp would lead to repercussions is hardly a recipe for harmony within the camp.
Furthermore, from now on, he and Laporte may have less room for manoeuvre if results do take a downturn at any time in the future.
The postponement of the Scottish game also interrupts French momentum after their opening two wins in Rome and Dublin, and could affect their preparations for their next game against England in Twickenham on Saturday week.
Then again, the furore coming their way as a result of this imbroglio could make them pull together, and stay together within their bubble, for they will surely have to be squeaky clean for the next few weeks.
The Toulouse and France outhalf Romain Ntamack, speaking at the announcement of the schedule for the 2023 World Cup last Friday, ventured: “This episode is not going to break the momentum. It has nothing to do with the athlete. This will not change our ambition. I’m not worried about the end of the tournament.”