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Harrington column: Philippe Saint-Andre calls for cup shootout to decide title

Semi Radradra in action in the Top 14

In the current health crisis in France professional rugby has, like all sports, taken a large backward step. Clubs, coaches and players are doing all the right things while the Top 14 and Pro D2 are on indefinite hiatus. They are staying at home, and popping up on social media to promote good Covid-19 practice.

Health and wellbeing comes first. 

Behind the scenes, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby has set up working groups to examine possible avenues for rescuing the coronavirus-hit season.

Cancelling the Top 14 and Pro D2 seasons remains a distinct possibility, but would cost the clubs an estimated €100m.

It’s understandable they would want to avoid such a level of losses.

There are plenty of theories going around as to what could happen next. Montpellier’s recently installed director of rugby, Philippe Saint-Andre, in his first rugby job since the 2015 World Cup, has suggested the 2019/20 Top 14 title could be decided by a knockout tournament involving all 14 clubs.

Bottom of the table Stade Francais’ relatively new general Manager Thomas Lombard, meanwhile, has gone a little Karren Brady and insisted that, if the season is pulled entirely, the Top 14’s basement club should not be relegated.

He went further and hinted that the league to expand to accommodate 16 clubs if needed.

It all provides desperately needed copy for frazzled sports journalists who would otherwise be looking at glaring white space.

Philippe Saint-Andre
Suitable conclusion: Montpellier rugby director Philippe Saint-Andre, like many others, wants to see the season to be seen through. David Rogers/Getty Images

But, away from the glare of the media, the 30 clubs of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby has been considering three options.

The first, based on the early thinking that the league could resume in early May, already appears at best wildly optimistic, as authorities begin to talk about extending the lockdown period from two to four weeks.

It hoped that the remaining rounds of the regular season, and the post-season play-offs could be completed in full, after a break of six weeks.

In purely financial terms, this is the favoured proposition as it keeps financial losses to a minimum.

But it comes with an unvoidable player welfare problem. Under this plan, clubs could face three rounds of midweek matches as well as a full run of weekend games to get the season completed – a situation the influential players’ union Provale has understandably rejected out of hand on player welfare grounds.

It assumes also that the two European competitions this year would be cancelled or postponed to a later date – with much larger financial ramifications for that competition.

A second option would entail shortened competitions involving the current top eight clubs only – effectively a knockout-style contest from the quarter-final stage.

It assumes a resumption date at the end of May or beginning of June – and would still allow the Top 14 final to take place on June 26 in Paris, as scheduled.

The league had broken along those lines before the coronavirus crisis, with the top eight fighting for the six play-off slots, and the bottom six desperate to avoid relegation. The bottom six in the Top 14, it has been suggested, could organise a similar survival competition.

It has been estimated that this would cost each club in the region of €1m and €4m.

Cancelling the Top 14 and ProD2 competitions is the third, final and nuclear option. But – as well as the estimated €100m  in losses – that raises its own questions and arguments.

If Top 14 leaders Bordeaux are handed the title, what would the other teams in the play-off places have to say?

And what about those clubs just outside the play-offs?

Toulouse, in seventh, are one point behind Clermont, who occupy the final play-off slot. Montpellier are three points adrift of Toulouse.

With Champions Cup places at stake, neither are likely to go quietly into this particular night.

And what about bottom-placed Stade Francais? Lombard has already said he would fight any plan to automatically relegate them before the season is properly completed.

These issues are only squared when the ProD2 clubs are brought into the equation.

FFR President Bernard Laporte suggested recently that France’s summer tour to Argentina was likely to be cancelled due to coronavirus.

In theory, this could give the LNR a bit of wriggle room – just don’t look too closely at the rapidly approaching 2020/21 season.

And even then, there are questions over contracts and players moving from one club to another. At the end of June, for example, Semi Radradra’s contract with Bordeaux is up, and he officially becomes a Bristol player. Pat Lam wouldn’t want him to risk injury competing in a French tournament on his dime.

The LNR’s working groups are examining all these issues to see what, if anything, they can salvage from the ruins of the season. But it’s all theory.

The first, the only, priority is stopping the spread of Covid-19. Everything else can wait.

JAMES HARRINGTON

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