A nervous month awaits as Covid threatens to disrupt another Six Nations

Questions over Champions Cup with players soon required to be vaccinated in France

Ireland beat England behind closed doors in the 2021 Six Nations. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The festive season is over and for rugby's administrators a pivotal month awaits. What happens next on the Covid front will not merely shape this season's cross-border club competitions but also dictate whether a fully-attended 2022 Six Nations championship is achievable. A nervous, knife-edge January looms.

What, say, are the current odds on thousands of English and Welsh fans being encouraged to travel en masse to Edinburgh and Dublin respectively for round one of the Six Nations in just over four weeks’ time? Or being sufficiently free of Omicron to do so? Bearing in mind the strict restrictions in place across Scotland, Ireland and Wales, little can yet be guaranteed.

In Scotland a maximum of 500 people are currently allowed at outdoor sports events. In Ireland sporting events can be watched by only 50 per cent capacity crowds until at least the end of the month. While hopes are high of an improved situation by March and April, will that necessarily be the case if the Six Nations’ endlessly sociable tide of humanity sweeps across the Irish Sea next month?

In France, moreover, there have been significant developments that could have a major bearing on more than just attendance numbers. Not only have crowd sizes been limited to 5,000 outside and 2,000 inside for the next three weeks – coinciding with rounds three and four of the Champions Cup – but stricter measures are poised to come into force from January 15th.


From Saturday week it will be a requirement in France to show a vaccine pass to attend a game as a spectator, official, staff member or, significantly, as a player. No longer, as things stand, will unvaccinated individuals be allowed in on the basis of a recent negative Covid test. Which means some high-profile players on both sides of the Channel will have to get themselves jabbed or not be welcome inside the ground, let alone the field of play.

More than 70,000 attanded the fixture between Harlequins and Northampton at Twickenham on December 27th. Photograph: Paul Harding/Getty

It is clearly a potential game-changer for some. Premiership Rugby says that 96 per cent of their players and management are now double vaccinated while the comparable figure in France is said to be 98 per cent. With expanded player squads eligible for Europe this season, however, that still leaves several dozen individuals unvaccinated and, barring a softening of the rules, unavailable.

What will this mean for those clubs with big European pool games in France over the next fortnight? Bath, Sale and Scarlets are all in France for Champions Cup fixtures next weekend and Cardiff, Connacht, Northampton and Exeter are due to travel across the Channel in round four. Newcastle are also due to play Challenge Cup games in Biarritz and Toulon on successive weekends; what a perfect working holiday that might have been in other circumstances but, on cost grounds, Falcons plan to commute to both games rather than stay put.

Fully vaccinated

At least one of the aforementioned teams, the Guardian understands, are in the clear because 100 per cent of their players are fully vaccinated. Which places them in a different league to some other sports. Before Christmas the English Football League revealed that 25 per cent of its players did not intend to get a vaccine, with only 59 per cent already double vaccinated. Let’s just say the unvaccinated minority might be wise to hesitate before accepting an 11th-hour January transfer window offer from France.

Back on planet rugby logistical talks have been ongoing. Some interesting contingency plans have also been floated. There have even been discussions about moving affected games to another country, possibly Ireland, though nothing has yet been rubber-stamped. Would something like that be feasible? Imagine if multiple teams and their entourages were holed up in the same hotel bar for 10 days? Fun but possibly not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Then again, if infection rates keep rising across Europe over the next fortnight, who knows? The testing uncertainty was already mounting even before the most recent Premiership screening figures were announced. Between Christmas Eve and December 30th 4,446 lateral flow and PCR tests were taken by Premiership players and management as part of the league’s Covid-19 screening programme. No fewer than 55 people from 11 different clubs tested positive, while Bath’s first game of the year, away at London Irish on Monday, was called off after a “significant number” of their playing squad were ruled out.

It was a reminder that, in the great scheme of things, rugby cannot entirely control its own destiny. The financial drip-drip effect of all this disruption is also increasingly hard to ignore. The tightened salary cap is already squeezing player salaries and employment opportunities and clubs badly need the matchday income that has latterly been flowing back.

To see 70,000-plus tickets sold for the Big Game at Twickenham last week was to be forcibly reminded of what the last two Premiership finals have lacked – and what the Six Nations again risks losing. To attend the Exeter v Bristol game on New Year’s Day was also to experience the stark contrasts in health and safety interpretations around the UK.

No one checked any of our family’s Covid passes on the way in, barely 20 per cent of the 14,100 attendance were masked and our narrow, cheek-by-jowl seats behind the posts made social distancing a forlorn dream. Was it a) an enticing vision of an imminent “normal” life or b) a super-spreader paradise? Rugby’s custodians can only pray that a) wins the day. - Guardian