Tension is understandably mounting in French rugby circles as the start of the new season gets so close they can taste it.
Last week, four Top 14 clubs – Bordeaux, Agen, Lyon and, most recently, Toulouse – reported new cases of Covid. All called off their final pre-season friendlies pending the results of a second round of tests.
Of the seven matches involving Top 14 sides planned for the last week before the Top 14 season is scheduled to kick off on Friday, five – including Toulon-Stade Francais, which has been off the cards for some time – were cancelled.
Meanwhile, Stade Francais versus Bordeaux – Friday night’s big scheduled Top14 opener – remains in serious doubt following the coronavirus outbreak at the Parisian club.
Stade’s general manager Thomas Lombard seemingly put the tin lid on postponement when he told L’Equipe on Friday he could not guarantee coach Gonzalo Quesada would be able to name a full squad for Bordeaux.
The LNR was due to make a decision on the game late on Friday, following an update from the club.
Pre-season has been a washout for the Parisian side. Players have not trained properly since the beginning of August. Some are still recovering from lung lesions caused by coronavirus. They have played no preparation games, and – whether or not the Bordeaux match goes ahead -– will head into the Top 14 season cold.
Ever the diplomat, however, Lombard added: “We are aware of the importance of the resumption of the Championship and we will do our best to accommodate ourselves to this situation.”
With several ProD2 clubs – Carcassonne, Perpignan, Montauban, Grenoble, Beziers, and Oyonnax – also hit by the virus, the concern is very real that professional rugby’s great planned resumption in France after six months will stumble and fall at the last.
This matters. Not in the great scheme of things, obviously. Sport, as a whole, does not compare to liberty, equality, humanity – or public health. It is, at best, one of the more important of the least important things. But, for many, the return of competitive rugby matters. And there’s a very difficult balancing act that clubs, league, government and fans have to maintain.
LNR president Paul Goze warned in an interview in Midi Olympique that “a number of clubs may not survive the winter”, without help from the state. He predicted that government limits on crowd numbers would result in a €35million shortfall in finances by October 30, if no assistance is forthcoming, and called for the extension of an exemption on paying crucial social charges which, he said, would go a long way to help clubs claw their way out of that particular financial black hole.
As he said: “To end up with professional clubs in bankruptcy while France hosts the World Cup in 2023 would be a disaster.”
His comments came after Toulouse president Didier Lacroix and his Bordeaux counterpart Laurent Marti both warned that clubs would not survive long with restrictions on crowd numbers. Marti went so far as to claim that closed-door matches would be the “death” of professional rugby in France.
Closed door games remain a risk as France struggles to cope with a dramatic rise in cases of coronavirus. For now, a general stadium capacity of 5,000 remains in force, but Prime Minister Jean Castex this week barred regional authorities in coronavirus ‘red-zone’ departments from issuing exemptions to clubs which would allow them to welcome larger crowds.
Currently 21 departments of France are considered ‘coronavirus red zones’, including Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), Gironde (Bordeaux), Herault (Montpellier), Paris (Stade Francais), Hauts-de-Seine (Racing 92), and Rhone (Lyon). Crowds there will be limited until the virus is back under control. If the situation worsens, Mr Castex warned, restrictions could be further tightened.
It matters to the league, which has reset stringent health protocols that clubs have to follow for the season proper. Among other factors, if a club reports three Covid cases in the days before a match, that game will be postponed. If players or coaching staff from a team break a designated safety bubble in the hours leading up to kick-off, that match will be called off and the points forfeited.
Goze warned, too, of the likelihood of midweek matches: “If too many matches have to be postponed, we will have no choice. Everyone will have to adapt. There will then be more rotation in the teams to protect the players,” he said.
Rugby’s return matters to Big TV. Canal Plus had already taken precautionary measures by altering the long-planned fixture lists for the opening two weekends in a bid to ensure primetime live sport under Friday night and Sunday night lights.
Last week’s fixture-altering decision demonstrates just how important top-flight rugby has become to French pay-TV broadcaster Canal Plus, since it lost the bulk of its Ligue 1 football rights.
With access to only two Ligue 1 games a week until 2024, Canal has put a large number of its sporting eggs in the domestic rugby basket, needing to fill traditional primetime live sport slots. Two Top 14 matches will be scheduled for Friday and Sunday nights. Of the 15 games in the opening round of the Top 14 and ProD2, it is broadcasting 14 on its various channels.
And, it matters to the government, which is hanging tough on keeping stadia as open as it dare. And it matters to the fans, starved of rugby for six months.