The European Rugby Cup was already not necessarily the most “understandable” competition for ordinary mortals – and even for specialists. The Covid-19 has made it even more unreadable. Above all, it is now the pandemic that decides the outcome of matches and not what happens on the pitch. To the point of distorting the competition, which is going through an unprecedented crisis.
This season, to anticipate the health constraints due to the current pandemic – and find space in the overloaded rugby calendar – the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which organizes European competitions, had concocted a new format: two pools of twelve teams, only four matches per team and eight qualified by groups for the round of 16.
But the outbreak of Covid-19 cases in the various teams, combined with travel restrictions (between France and Great Britain in particular) following the eruption of the omicron variant have contributed to calling into question the nature of the competition: some matches were decided on green carpet (depending on the case, victory, draw or defeat), when other teams played matches with largely reorganized squads.
Stade Toulouse is the latest “victim” to date. Friday January 21, the EPCR, which organizes European competitions, announced both the cancellation of the meeting against Cardiff (theoretically scheduled for Saturday) and the defeat on the green carpet of the French club, defending champion.
Since then, the latter, and with him French rugby, have not taken off. The “case” even saw the government express, on Sunday, its ” incomprehension “ through a letter from the Minister Delegate for Sports, Roxana Maracineanu, to the EPCR.
“I am awaiting an explanation of the reasons which led you to sanction Stade Toulousain when it had a full team to play the match against Cardiff and scrupulously respected the protocol of the LNR. [Ligue nationale de rugby] authoritative to participate in the European Cup, as indicated in your rules », writes the minister.
The risk of contamination deemed “too great”
Diminished by a dozen players who tested positive – among them executives of the Blues, like captain Antoine Dupont -, Toulouse thought of playing the match, being able to align 23 negative players (including at least fifteen professionals and six front line players ), as required by regulation.
But considering the risk of additional contamination ” too important “, the EPCR decided to cancel the game. A decision “incredible and outrageous”, denounced the president of Toulouse, Didier Lacroix.
As with the Montpellier-Leinster meeting, scheduled for December 17, 2021 but canceled due to contamination in the Irish team, the body offered victory to the opposing team on green carpet (i.e. 28-0).
Like Toulouse this weekend, Leinster then cried foul. But the EPCR had seen in the cancellation of the Dublin team’s next championship meeting – due to too many contaminations – a validation of its decision.
“I don’t know if this competition means anything”
Since the start of the competition, the inconsistencies in the formula have been highlighted by the players in the Champions Cup. “The competition is completely distorted, today it no longer makes sense, hammered Christophe Urios, the manager of Bordeaux-Bègles in early November 2021. Between those who are declared losers with 0 points, the others who don’t play and who have 2 points… It’s simply zero. Already there are only four games… ”
In addition to the lack of legibility of the competition, its inequity is strongly underlined. Sportingly, first. “Frankly, this competition, I do not know if it rhymes with something, had scolded the Clermont opener Camille Lopez, after the cancellation of the second meeting of Clermont in Sale (and a draw). It’s a mess, clearly. »
If everyone is in the same boat, some situations defy understanding. Thus, the Bristol team validated its qualification in the round of 16 having won only one match: counting a victory and a draw on green carpet before playing any match, the English beat the French stadium in the third day, January 15, and validated their passage to the final phase.
Supported by the National League, which denounces a “unfair decision in violation of own regulations [de l’EPCR] which discredits the competition”, Toulouse does not intend to let this reversal of the rules pass. “We are changing the rules”, denounced Didier Lacroix, “It not only calls into question the credibility of the decisions or the decision-making methods of the EPCR. »
“We will have to put things in order”
The soap opera could continue. Willy-nilly, with Montpellier’s victory over Exeter (37-26), this strange group stage came to an end on Sunday 23 January. Now it’s time for the competition between national teams, the Six Nations Tournament (which begins in early February), and the respective championships.
These competitions will certainly also suffer from the pandemic. As for the European Cup, it will not return until the spring, the round of 16 being scheduled for early April. Hoping, probably, that the health situation has improved.
Finally qualified, despite their match lost on green carpet, thanks to the victory of Stade Français against the Irish of Connacht on Sunday (37-31), Stade Toulouse remains in contention to achieve the double.
But the competition has largely suffered from the comings and goings of the regulations, to the point that the sportsman has taken a back seat. As NRL president René Bouscatel summed it up on Saturday: “we will have to seriously put our European Cup in order. »