Will we see France's Antoine Dupont work his magic across the entirety of this year's Six Nations?
France’s participation in the Six Nations was plunged into fresh doubt on Tuesday night after the country’s sports minister sought further “guarantees” from the British and Irish governments over its Covid-19 containment plans.
The French government’s intervention has already resulted in the indefinite postponement of the European Champions Cup, which had matches scheduled for the next two weeks, as concerns mount across the Channel regarding the new strain of Covid-19 which is prevalent in Britain and Ireland. France are scheduled to start the tournament against Italy on February 6 before playing away to Ireland on February 14 and England on February 28.
The Six Nations organisers have met with French officials and have already indicated that they intend to strengthen their coronavirus regulations, particularly around players being added to the squad as the tournament progresses. England players, meanwhile, will have to adhere to the rules recently released by the Premiership which prohibit face-to-face try celebrations.
However, after meeting the French rugby federation, sports minister Roxana Maracineanu indicated that further assurances would need to be provided for their matches against Ireland and England to go ahead.
“We keep the first match (against Italy),” Maracineanu said. “On the other hand, against Ireland and England we absolutely need to have the necessary guarantees from these countries. There has to be proof that the other nations’ virus framework respects the same requirements in terms of precaution. We expect the same thing from the other teams.”
Telegraph Sport understands that European Professional Club Rugby will announce a new competition format within the next two weeks after the French government banned its clubs from competing against British and Irish opposition until at least February.
A meeting of tournament directors on Tuesday took place in which a range of options were discussed, but it is leaning towards abandoning the final two group matches and going straight to a last-16 knockout phase.
In response to the cancellation of the European matches, the English Premiership has opted to enforce a two-week break while the French Top 14 and PRO14 have rescheduled matches to fill the void in the calendar. The Premiership’s position appeared even more isolated after Harlequins winger Chris Ashton described two-week hiatus as “not ideal for us as players.”
Despite the opposition of several leading coaches including Bristol’s Pat Lam, Exeter’s Rob Baxter and Wasps’ Lee Blackett, Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs justified the decision to keep the fixtures as they were on “welfare grounds”. However, speaking to the BBC, Ashton said that players were happy for games to be brought forward.
“We were due to play anyway so I don’t think it matters what competition it is,” Ashton said. “The last thing teams want is to go two weekends without a game. It keeps everyone fit and firing.”
The PRO14 has rearranged the postponed derby matches of Glasgow v Edinburgh and Leinster v Munster to be played over the next two weeks while the Top 14 has rescheduled round 19 which was due to be played on the weekend of March 19-21. That will allow more French internationals to be involved for their clubs, an argument put forward by coaches such as Lam who have had to rest their England contingent in two of the past five weeks.
The decision was taken by Premiership Rugby’s executive rather than the clubs as a collective, but it has found support in certain quarters.
Gloucester chief executive Lance Bradley says that a break in a season that lasts through to June has to be welcomed.
“We weren’t involved in a vote in it,” Bradley said. “It was a call that PRL have made. But we are quite happy with it.
“Having a break is a good thing, and a lot of people don’t understand quite in particular what the impact on players is of playing every week. It’s a really attritional sport and if you are doing it every week, it is incredibly hard work. To have a couple of weeks break is undoubtedly a good thing for the players.”
While the “welfare” element does all extend to overworked support staff, many clubs will keep their players in training which will negate the idea that this will represent a break for many players. Bristol Bears, Worcester Warriors and Newcastle Falcons are among the clubs who are understood to have given their players time off this week.