Six Nations: France and Fabien Galthié in the eye of Covid-19 storm
Reports in L’Équipe claimed head coach had broken bubble rules ahead of Ireland win
France’s clash with Scotland on Sunday has been postponed. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
The ramifications resulting from the outbreak of Covid-19 in the French squad could have serious repercussions beyond the postponement of Sunday’s game against Scotland in Paris, with the role of the FFR and the French head coach Fabien Galthié placing them in the eye of a storm.
Sunday’s France-Scotland game was cancelled after the FFR announced a new positive case of Covid-19 in its ranks, believed to be Uini Atonio, which takes to 12 the number of French players to have contracted the virus along with four members of their support staff, including Galthié.
Serge Simon, the vice-president of the FFR and the covid manager of their national teams, had declared that the “patient zero” had been a fitness trainer.
“The patient zero, we know him: he is our physical trainer,” said Simon.
But this has been questioned by sections of the French media, who have instead pointed the finger of blame at Galthié for alleged breaches of the squad’s bubble in their Marcoussis training base.
This line of thought has been circulating since the middle of last week and last Wednesday the French sports daily L’Équipe claimed Galthié had repeatedly broken the squad’s bio-secure bubble in Marcoussis in the week Les Bleus were preparing for their Six Nations match in Ireland.
The claim by Simon regarding the ‘zero patient’ has also been questioned by midi olimpique on its website, Rugbyrama.fr, when it too raised the possibility that Galthié, declared positive only a few hours after his physical trainer, could have just as easily been “patient 0”. This was immediately rejected by the FFR.
“All my actions comply with health protocol. I do not understand these unjustified accusations” Galthié told L’Équipe.
Even so, rugbyrama.fr wrote: “The numerous testimonies arriving from Marcoussis, however, serve another version.”
This episode will also worsen the relationship between the Top 14 clubs and both the FFR and the French team management, and has also severely tarnished the image of a French team revitalised by Galthié and his staff, and who had been playing the best rugby of any French team in a decade.
However, another unpleasant element of this saga was the rather lose observation by the French team manager Raphael Ibanez that the outbreak in the French camp could have originated in Ireland.
“Nobody can know how this happened. Was it in Ireland? Why not through the media who were allowed in to watch training? It only takes one infected person for the contamination to take hold in others,” said Ibanez.
The whole episode has left a cloud hanging over the behaviour of the French camp. As Richard Escot, a longtime and respected rugby writer with L’Equipe told The Irish Times: “We are sad and ashamed, ashamed that a shadow of doubt now hangs over the French Federation and the French team.”
Simon, a former prop with Bordeaux/Begles and France, and a qualified doctor, is also coming under increased scrutiny in his role as the “Covid manager” of all the national teams in France.
In the past month, there have been three outbreaks of Covid-19, in the French Under-20 squad during a training camp in Portugal last month, in the French Sevens squad and now in the senior mens’ squad.
Roxana Maracineanu, the French Minister of Sport, has written to the President of the FFR, Bernard Laporte, demanding an internal investigation relating to the implementation and compliance with the health protocol validated by the authorities during the Six Nations, and also to ascertain the chain of contamination in the squad.
This investigation must be submitted to the Minister within the next eight days but in the absence of proof that Galthié was the “zero patient” it is not expected that the French head coach will apologise or that he will fall on his sword.
However, it sees there is little chance now, if any, of the France-Scotland game being rescheduled for next weekend, a fallow weekend in the Six Nations, with doubts as to when it can be squeezed into a congested rugby calendar.
Given the French squad are understood to have had a live scrummaging session yesterday (Wednesday) there is also a fear that there might yet be more cases of Covid-19 in their squad.
Furthermore, depending on the continuing fall-out from this saga, it may even place into doubt Les Bleus’ next game, which is against England at Twickenham on Saturday, March 13th.