Stade Francais centre Gael Fickou

Harrington column: Stade Francais looking less and less likely to be ready for Top 14 season

Coronavirus continues to threaten the start of the 2020/21 Top 14 season, as clubs entered the preseason friendly phase of preparations.

Several clubs have been affected. Lyon returned to near-full training last week after two players had to self-isolate in early August; Agen were temporarily on restricted training duties; Montpellier took no risks for several days after the partner of a player came into contact with someone who had tested positive.

Montauban-Castres – a match dedicated to former player Ibrahim Diarra, who died in December – was cancelled on Friday after a Montauban player tested positive. Provence, Beziers and Grenoble have also had to drop into coronavirus protocols as the season nears.

But the focus in France has, unsurprisingly, been on Stade Francais, where the situation has been more serious than most. The club said in a statement this week that a number of players who had contracted Covid-19 had developed lesions on their lungs – forcing them into an extended recovery period.

“These lesions require a period of complete rest estimated at a minimum of one week, which will be added to the fortnight already observed,” the statement said.

There is less than two weeks to the scheduled start of the campaign, with Stade’s game against Bordeaux in line to kick off Top 14 proceedings on the evening of September 4.

The worst affected cohort of players in the squad are specialist front rowers. Scrums had been a key work-on element during a training camp in Nice, where the virus apparently spread.

In an interview published in Friday’s Midi Olympique, Thomas Lombard, the club’s general manager, said: “As it stands, the workforce we have does not allow it (the Top 14 match against Bordeaux to go ahead). “It seems to me very difficult to be ready because we do not know when we will (have everyone available).”

Difficulties: Stade Francais general manager Thomas Lombard, left, with fly-half Nicolas Sanchez. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

The club suspended training – effectively going into lockdown – when it became clear a cluster had developed and cancelled pre-season friendlies against Brive and Toulon – their only preparation games.

The closest thing there is to good news from the club is that none of the players have been hospitalised. More tests are scheduled for Monday. Lombard is hopeful that, “indicators should gradually turn green”. But, he pointed out, “the level of preparation will be disparate… since August 5, our full-strength training has stopped.

“We have not played a rugby match since March 16,” he went on. “We will not be able to respect the sporting protocol which provides for a period of 12 consecutive weeks of training… the coming days will be decisive.”

Lombard actually got his dates wrong: March 16 is when France went into lockdown. Stade’s last match was two weeks earlier, on March 1, when they lost a tense game at Toulon by a single point.

Even assuming players recover in time to play on September 4, they would have to go into the game cold, with zero gametime under their belts since then – six months previously.

Despite this, he is not looking to delay what would be the very first game of the Top 14 season. “We will let the LNR medical committee decide,” he said. “There is a college of specialists who will be able to establish the possibility or not of playing this meeting.”

And, against all odds, he has maintained an air of confidence: “We think the situation will improve. These cases… still concern very few players. This means that the others will be able to pick up little by little.”

Whether his optimism is misplaced remains to be seen. Postponement would not affect only the Paris club. Bordeaux, too, would have to find time in their schedule. Stade are then scheduled to travel to Castres for the second round of the competition the following weekend.

Finding a spare weekend in this packed season would be possible, but very difficult. Both Bordeaux and Castres have additional outstanding Challenge Cup quarter-final interests – which may involve negotiating the minefield of UK-France quarantine regulations.

Clubs, meanwhile, are desperate to see crowds at their grounds.

The French government has extended a limit on crowds at stadiums of 5,000 until October 31 – but has said that regional authorities can issue exemptions.

La Rochelle have asked for a 12,000 crowd limit in the 16,000-capacity Stade Marcel Deflandre. Perpignan have been allowed 8,000 in the 14,000-capacity Aime-Giral. But Toulouse’s first bid to increase the 5,000 limit at Ernest Wallon was rejected, after officials said it would be ‘incompatible’ with a newly imposed city-wide mask-wearing requirement.

The club has said it will continue negotiations, as it tries to cash in on its Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster.

More than football, Top 14 and Pro D2 clubs’ survival depends on fans buying tickets. Buying food and drinks, and merchandise. Spending money.

The inconvenient truth is fans need to play by current Covid rules, too. The longer Covid-19 remains almost-but-not-quite under control, the longer tougher restrictions will remain in place.

Clubs and players and officials have done their best. On their own, their efforts are not enough.

Right now, cases in France are rising, as people relax a little too much on holiday. The situation, in France as in the UK, is not as desperate as it was, but it’s worse than it should be.

JAMES HARRINGTON

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