Top 14 Preview: Strict Covid-19 measures give unvaxxed players an ultimatum

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

The Ligue Nationale de Rugby on Wednesday retightened Covid-19 protocols after its lucrative annual ‘Boxing Days’-marketed weekend was battered by postponements.

Since the beginning of the season, unvaccinated players – the league has said that 98 percent of players and staff in the Top 14 have had at least two doses of vaccine – have faced daily PCR testing, while those who have been inoculated are only tested if they are contact cases.

The new rules, which kicked in on Thursday, December 30, state that vaccinated players must undergo PCR tests twice a week. Tests must be carried out on the first day of training after a match, and 48 hours before the next match. 

Unvaccinated players and staff continue to be tested every 24 hours. Any player who returns a positive test goes into immediate isolation, while the rest of the vaccinated group trains as normal. Squad members who have not been vaccinated are treated as contact cases and isolate pending further tests.

Matches will go ahead as long as both sides can field a full 23-player squad, including six front rows and a minimum 15 senior professional squad members. No more than eight players on academy contracts can make up a matchday squad.

From Monday, after this current round of games, the French government has ordered that crowd sizes are limited to 5,000 outside and 2,000 inside for the next three weekends at least – which takes in the scheduled third and fourth round of European fixtures. 

And impending changes to health pass rules in France mean that anyone who wants to play or watch rugby must carry a new ‘vaccine pass’, from January 15th – a change that heaps pressure on as-yet unvaccinated pro players, and their clubs.

With all that in mind, and there had been question marks over a couple of games until the Friday test results were confirmed, here’s a look ahead to the first seven matches of the 2022 part of the 2021/22 season.

Meanwhile, a reminder. The table, with six teams having played 13 matches, and eight having played 12 following last week’s postponements, looks like this:

For the record, Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, broadcaster Premier Sports has chosen three games this week – Clermont v Toulouse, Lyon v Racing 92, and Montpellier v Toulon.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Stade Francais v Perpignan (kick off 7pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

From two sides coming off wins, to two sides desperately in need of one. Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade were one of the Top 14 clubs to suffer a Covid outbreak in the run-up Christmas, which meant their December 26th trip to Toulouse was called off hours before kick-off. That may have been a blessing in disguise, given the side the hosts were ready to put out in front of more than 30,000 fans at Stadium Toulouse.

Patrick Arlettaz’s Perpignan, however, slipped up at home to Castres, losing a truly, madly French game 20-19. For all his post-match bluster about the refereeing of Romain Poite, Arlettaz will have to secretly admit – quietly, in the dark, when he thinks no one’s listening – his side could also have lost by more than a single point. 

This is a lower-reaches-of-the-table tussle. Which means it could go one of several ways. Perpignan will want to keep it close and tight and niggly. 

Stade will want to – somehow – get the ball to their strike runners in areas where they can do damage, which, for fans, also involves some hope of them actually doing that damage. But they have to do this with just a couple of post-Covid training sessions under their belts.

Whichever side wins the gamestyle challenge will go a long way to winning the game. The odds have to be with the hosts – and don’t be too surprised if this one ends up as a reasonably high-scoring affair.

Clermont v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Despite not actually getting any gametime since their Champions Cup win in Cardiff, Toulouse have been busy. Club president Didier Lacroix has tied Antoine Dupont, Julien Marchand, Francois Cros and Cyrille Baille to new long-term contracts, while agreeing long-expected deals to bring French internationals Melvyn Jaminet and Arthur Retiere to Stade Ernest Wallon at the end of the season.

Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Peato Mauvaka are all expected to sign contract extensions sooner rather than later – but Rory Arnold is rumoured to favour a move back to Australia in a bid to revive his international career.

Clermont, too, have had a longer-than-expected rest over the Christmas period because of Covid – and have benefited from an emptying of their infirmary, with Damian Penaud, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra and Etienne Fourcade now primed and ready to go. 

It’s reported, however, that the extension of vaccine rules could hit Clermont particularly hard, with at least two pivotal players said to be unwilling to be vaccinated despite the planned changes.

This is always an important match. For Clermont and Jono Gibbes, this time, it’s a balance sheet moment. Twelve matches into the Top 14 campaign, they have six wins and six losses. Now they have to prove that they have ironed out the inaccuracies and loss of control that has plagued the opening half of the season. Against Toulouse.

Sunday, January 2

Pau v Brive (kick off 2pm)

Stade du Hameau

Brive have not won a match in nearly two months, losing six of their last seven Top 14 matches. They have only played twice since November 6th, and not at all in the past 29 days. And now, the Top 14’s 12th-placed side opens an important period in their battle for survival with a trip to ninth-placed Pau.

After such a long break, a fifth win of the season would be a serious fillip for the visitors heading into the new year. 

Pau, meanwhile, haven’t played since the loss against London Irish on December 11, with their last match at Racing called off after Covid cases in both camps. Although players were ‘all asymptomatic’ according to head coach Sebastien Piqueronies, collective training was suspended and numerous players were isolated.

Testing earlier this week allowed players to return to group training, prior to which the club had effectively been closed since December 23rd. Hardly ideal preparation for a big match, and it’s probably fair to expect more than a little ring rust.

Bordeaux v Biarritz (kick off 2pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

A crucial month for Top 14 basement side Biarritz could hardly begin with a tougher assignment than a trip to leaders Bordeaux – a place where not many visiting sides leave with anything other than bruises. 

Points are, however, exactly what Biarritz need, however, as hooker Francois Da Ros said this week: “We’ll have to go get something away from home. The group remains positive – we have to keep hold of that to get points. We have to stop making excuses and get back to work, that’s how we’ll get there.”

It wasn’t excuses that lost them last week’s match against Montpellier so much as realism. They were just 13-12 behind and just starting to really push the visitors after a penalty-strewn first period when Bastien Chalureau was sent off with 20 minutes left. It was the start of a period that demanded clear heads and simple, effective rugby, efficiently executed.

Instead, Biarritz – who announced a few contract extensions this week – pushed too hard, lost control and conceded two late tries that sent Montpellier back home with a bonus point win on the road.

It’s probably safe to describe this week’s outing against a side 24 points ahead of them in the league as a write-off for Matthew Clarkin’s Basque side. Their Challenge Cup match at Aguilera against Newcastle may well be one to ignore, too.

But next week’s match at home to Perpignan and the month’s-end trip to Brive are both eight-pointers, even with months yet to play. Those are the games that Clarkin and his brains-trust will be focusing most closely on this month. This one? A point would probably feel like a win.

Castres v La Rochelle (kick off 4pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Two of last weekend’s three winning sides meet at what’s sure to be a raucous Stade Pierre Fabre before the new crowd limit rules kick in. 

La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara knows the challenge that Castres will set – he wrote about them in grudgingly respectful terms in his must-read Irish Examiner column last week. Castres may even consider his words ‘glowing’ as it’s them to a T.

Then, after his own side’s dismantling of Lyon in the rain last week, O’Gara issued something of a rallying cry: he wants that level of performance on the road. He’s got two chances in the next two rounds to pull that off, with trips to Castres and Toulon on the ticket.

But O’Gara knows, better than most, that winning at Castres won’t be easy – only Harlequins managed it, against what’s best described as a mix-and-match Top 14 side, in the whole of 2021. And, after that defeat, the hosts will want to set the record straight in front of their own fans. 

Some late news from La Rochelle, too. On Friday, the club announced the arrival of Kavekini Tabu on a short-term ‘medical joker’ contract as injury cover for Levani Botia.

Lyon v Racing 92 (kick off 6pm)

Stadium Gerland

Move along – there was nothing to see, there. That’s pretty been much the message out of Lyon this week after their defeat in the rain and wind at La Rochelle last Monday. 

Head coach Pierre Mignoni admitted he had ‘no excuses to make’ after the 25-3 loss at Marcel Deflandre. 

“What interests me is that our players are keen not to come across as idiots for the second game in a row,” he said. “A poor performance can happen, no problem. But I hope it pricked the pride of the boys not to make the same mistakes twice.”

Faint praise among the damnation, then, from a coach who may be relying a little too heavily on individual pride from his players right now – but who should be able to welcome back Josua Tuisova, after the player completed a World Rugby training programme following a ban for dangerous play.

It is, however, possibly a good time to play Racing, who head to Stadium Gerland short on match time – their last scheduled outing against Pau was postponed because of Covid-19 – and on the back of a three-match losing run in the Top 14. 

Montpellier v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

GGL Stadium

Franck Azema has been at Toulon for about two months. He may have thought he knew what he was getting himself into when he signed his contract, up to and including the severity of former club Clermont’s reaction. 

But, in that time, his side has played just four games, one of which was a handy Challenge Cup run-out against Zebre. But, overall, it’s hard, just looking at performances on the pitch, to see his impact at Berg.

Now he’s got to prepare his players for a trip to Montpellier to face a side that has won its last six in the Top 14, playing highly efficient, effective rugby, and is third in the table, level on points with Toulouse.

It’s easy to imagine who’s the happier of the two coaches right now. But the fixture list is not created to please coaches, with or without Covid.

This is here and this is now for Azema. He’s getting players back from injury, and he’s putting his stamp on the club, while – and this is important – understanding its history, style and philosophy. 

Could this – finally – be the start of a new and exciting era at Toulon? Montpellier are on a streak that looks hard to stop.

But, Toulon have lost just once in Azema’s brief reign. If the visitors can even get close this weekend, he may well be on to something, even before he seriously starts to shape this team.

Enjoy…

My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

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