European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) has confirmed the postponement of the Champions and Challenge Cups on the back of a request from the French government to Top 14 clubs that they suspend their involvement in the competitions until February.
The body declared that it had “no choice” but to call a halt to the competitions which had already been shaved from six rounds of pool games to four, only two of which had been played prior to the festive season.
“While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR, in conjunction with its shareholder leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable,” said the statement.
What that solution will be it did not say.
Six Nations organisers, meanwhile, are to meet with representatives of the French Ministry of Sport tomorrow to discuss the tournament, which is scheduled to kick off on February 6. The hope is that a tournament comprised of only six teams in 'bubbles' will be able to proceed as planned.
Continuing the European club campaign was a far trickier proposition in light of rising Covid-19 numbers across the continent and the concern expressed by French authourities over the UK variant which is believed to be far more transmissable.
In a letter sent to director general of the Ligue National de Rugby, Emmanuel Eschalier, the Ministry of Sport wrote: "Following the recommendations, already expressed by the representatives of the Ministry of Solidarity and Health at the meeting of January 7 under the aegis of the Prime Minister's office ... I confirm that the government is asking French professional rugby clubs to postpone their participation in European Cup matches until early February 2021, both for matches organised in France and those taking place in British and Irish soil.
"As a matter of priority, the French Government wishes to combat all risks of the introduction of the variant VOC 202012/01 and its circulation on national territory; it will therefore take all the necessary decisions during the week to set the framework for the restrictions imposed."
The Ministry went on in its letter: "We want, in conjunction with the European organisers of these competitions and your British and Irish counterparts, to find the best solutions so that the competition can take place with a schedule adapted to the current health constraints."
It may be that the two-legged quarter-finals are used to play out the remaining two rounds of pool fixtures with the top two sides from each half of the draw progressing directly to semis. Another option is for the top 16 sides as things stand to move on to the last eight.
Lyon president Yann Robert has mooted both possibilities in an interview on RMC radio in France.
EPCR chief executive Vincent Gaillard has already declared that the European events would be completed and changes have already been agreed to Covid-19 testing procedures among the British and Irish clubs in an attempt to bring them into line with measures adopted in France.
EPCR's statement yesterday said that: “Notable updates to EPCR’s Covid-19 protocols were presented to the French authorities, including the addition of PCR tests no earlier than three days before matches in the tournaments, conforming to French government guidelines and supplementing the existing, meticulous contact tracing measures put in place with a view to limiting the risk of transmission.”
France's Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu is also expected to meet Paul Goze, president of the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby), this evening amid expectations that the league will schedule Top 14 matches over the next fortnight and in the absence of the European fixtures.
How the provinces fill the gap remains to be seen but this is likely, at the very least, to allow the St Stephen's Day clash between Munster and Leinster clash, postponed due to a delay in Covid testing results, to go ahead this month.
The Guinness PRO14 has yet to issue a fixture list for the remainder of its season while the proposed Rainbow Cup, which is due to start in April and include the four South African franchises, must now be in serious doubt given the deteriorating situation on both continents.
The main priority for European rugby is the Six Nations.
Yesterday, FFR president Bernard Laporte said he expected this year's showcase and financial money-spinner will go ahead as planned. "I believe that we should not be alarmed for the Six Nations Tournament," he told RMC Sport Radio.
"It will be played, with a health protocol dictated by the government, and linked to this mutant virus. Everything went well in the autumn, so will the upcoming tournament, I'm no more worried than that."