Biarritz could face Covid-19 sanctions after winning promotion to the Top 14

Newly promoted Top 14 side Biarritz could be in trouble with local officials for breaches of French Covid-19 rules during a tension-fuelled promotion play-off against Basque Country neighbours Bayonne.

Biarritz won on penalties, after the two sides could not be separated in normal or extra time at the end of a hard-fought, blood-and-thunder winner-takes-all encounter at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

But the prefecture of Pyrénées Atlantiques was less-than impressed with Biarritz’s crowd control in the age of Covid-19. Under current French rules, the limit on crowds in open-air stadiums is set at 65% of capacity, up to a maximum of 5,000.

The Prefecture insisted in a press release that the 5,000 limit at the the 13,400-capacity stadium had ‘obviously been exceeded’, and said it was aware of other possible breaches of health rules.

“For the match between Biarritz Olympique and Aviron Bayonnais on 12 June 2021, the capacity of the Aguiléra Stadium, set at 5,000 people by decree no. 2021-699 of 1 June 2021 prescribing the general measures necessary for the management of the health crisis, was clearly exceeded. 

“In addition, the national police noted the sale of takeaway alcohol within the stadium. In addition, the club did not systematically carry out health pass checks at the stadium entrances,” the statement continued.

“Finally, at the end of the match, the pitch was invaded without any respect for health measures.”

Club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé was photographed celebrating with fans immediately after the final whistle.

“During the preparatory meetings held by the sous-prefecture of Bayonne, Biarritz Olympique fully committed to respecting the 5,000-person limit and not to sell take-away alcohol.

“The prefect of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques firmly condemns this failure to comply with the rules laid down by decree no. 2021-699 of 1 June 2021, which aim to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“He recalls that it is the responsibility of event organisers, particularly sports organisers, to ensure that these rules are respected in order to avoid the spread of the virus. 

“Consequently, the prefect of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in accordance with article 40 of the code of criminal procedure, has referred the matter to the public prosecutor of Bayonne and is studying administrative sanctions that could be taken.”

Biarritz coach Shaun Sowerby did try to diffuse the situation. “No, I counted, there were about 5,000 people … who made a lot more noise than 5,000,” he smilingly told regional newspaper Sud Ouest.

But an LNR official told RMC Sport there were between ‘8,000 and 9,000’ spectators at the ground. Supporters in the ground included an apparently maskless Teddy Thomas, whose career kicked off at Biarritz, a day after he helped Racing 92 book their semi-final place against La Rochelle.

Any sanction from the prefecture is unlikely to affect the result of the match, nor prevent Biarritz’s promotion and Bayonne’s relegation. A fine, and possibly a ground ban, are more likely. The LNR – which has imposed fines for breaches of health measures –  may also take an interest.

This is the second time in a week that crowds at rugby matches in France have sparked controversy. The police were reportedly called to Castres Olympique’s Stade Pierre Fabre during the post-curfew match against Toulon on the final round of the season because of fans in the ground.

According to La Depeche du Midi, officers were called by Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre – who also reportedly was involved in heated discussions with club coach Patrice Collazo. Mr Lemaitre denied the newspaper’s claim.

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