French outrage over Toulouse match cancellation is just smoke and mirrors

Toulon’s Stade Ernest Wallon remained empty after the Champions Cup tie against Cardiff was cancelled. Image: Numahell / CC0

French rugby is pressuring European rugby officials to re-examine the cancellation of Toulouse’s Champions Cup match against Cardiff and award the victory to the URC side – with the Top 14 club, French rugby authorities and even the sports minister weighing in on the issue.

But whether this apparently remarkably united front of indignant French grandstanding achieves anything – or, even, if it should – are different questions entirely. 

Toulouse president Didier Lacroix said on Friday he was considering legal options. “What I find incredible and scandalous is that the EPCR does not apply the rules that have been laid down for us,” he said in an impassioned press conference shortly after the cancellation, imposed by EPCR, was confirmed. 

“This calls into question not only the credibility of the decisions of the EPCR, but also the credibility of the LNR,” a visibly furious Lacroix added. It should be noted part of his fury was over Toulouse’s lack of lucrative gametime in recent weeks.

“This decision can be challenged legally, even if justice cannot be done … before the end of the competition … The organisers have a duty to justify decisions it has been making.”

The players, in a statement on the club website, and head coach Ugo Mola, in an interview published in Monday’s Midi Olympique, voiced their support for Lacroix.

The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), which operates the professional men’s game in France, rallied in support on Friday afternoon. League president Rene Bouscatel – a former Toulouse player and president – also suggested possible legal recourse, said in a statement (pdf): “This decision is irresponsible. I have decided to convene an LNR Board of Directors’ meeting as a matter of urgency to discuss the follow-up, including [any] legal action, to be taken on this decision.”

The legal threat from Toulouse and the LNR has prompted the EPCR to keep its counsel publicly. But its stance is certain to be the same now, with Toulouse, as it was when Leinster’s trip to Montpellier was cancelled in December. 

Then, despite the fact Leinster had named a matchday 23 and despite the fact that Irish authorities had allowed the club to travel later than originally scheduled, the EPCR decided the health risk of playing the match was too great.

“The Match Risk Assessment Committee, made up of medical doctors from EPCR’s Medical Advisory Group as well as an independent medical specialist with experience in virology, advised EPCR of its concerns following new positive Covid-19 test results from the Leinster Rugby playing squad, and regrettably the decision was made to cancel the match,” read the EPCR statement at the time.

December’s decision was never about Leinster being allowed to travel – they were. That wasn’t the point. 

The point was, rather, about ensuring that 46 players and staff, as well as match officials, were as safe as possible in an up-close-and-personal game of top-level rugby played as a pandemic raged. 

Though 23 Leinster players had tested negative two days before the match, the concern then was that there was too great a risk, given the number of cases in the squad as a whole, that some players were in the very early stages of infection, too soon to be detected.

Leinster’s next URC game – a week after the Montpellier match was cancelled – was postponed because of Covid cases in the squad.

In Toulouse’s case, it is understood that as many as 20 positive tests were reported in the camp, triggering the EPCR’s medical advisory group to recommend that the game should not go ahead because the state of the outbreak meant there was a ‘high risk of further infection’.

Toulouse and the LNR were able to make submissions to that committee – but the final decision was out of their hands, as it had been with Leinster previously. 

Lacroix had admitted early in his impassioned press conference that the club had counted ‘four cases’ on the Monday before Saturday’s scheduled match. Twenty cases by Thursday would seem to suggest the outbreak was not entirely under control.

Mola, in his Midi Olympique interview, appears to confirm this. “We even offered to test ourselves on the morning of the match,” he said. “There would certainly have been one or two more players out, but we had the reserve to put in two youngsters. 

“Our team would have been clean on the pitch.”

FFR president Bernard Laporte also weighed-in to the debate, after his former club, Bordeaux forfeited their match against Leicester at Welford Road, saying on Twitter: “I understand the anger of the players and their clubs. EPCR’s decisions are unsportsmanlike and discouraging.”

Meanwhile, France’s sports minister Roxana Maracineanu wrote to EPCR president Dominic McKay, it was confirmed on Sunday. In her letter, Maracineanu said: “We do not understand the decision taken by the EPCR against Stade Toulousain.

“It’s totally incomprehensible. I therefore await an explanation of the reasons which led you to penalise Stade Toulousain for a lost match when they had a full team to play the match against Cardiff and scrupulously respected the protocol of the LNR authentic to participate in the European Cup, as indicated in your rules.”

Maracineanu argued the French government, “has validated the protocol presented by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby. This is extremely robust and the rigour with which it is applied, in complete transparency, is exemplary.

“Your incomprehensible decision discredits the health protocol of our Championship and all of French sport.”

Several Toulouse players initially selected for a France Six Nations training camp have been replaced because they have Covid-19. It remains to be seen whether Toulouse’s match against Racing 92 at Ernest Wallon on Saturday evening goes ahead. It might, under LNR rules.

Both Toulouse and the LNR argue that, in cancelling the match, the EPCR has misrepresented its own Covid rules – to which the three leagues involved in the competition have agreed.

Those rules state: “Players, coaching staff and essential club personnel will be tested in line with the testing protocols for their respective leagues and/or to satisfy any international travel requirements which might be imposed by governments and public health agencies in the relevant territories. All players, coaching staff and essential club personnel must return a negative Covid test result in match week. The test results can be utilised to facilitate cross-border travel to matches.”

The LNR and Toulouse argue that current LNR rules, which came into force at the end of December, allow for a match to go ahead if a club can name a matchday 23 of players from the senior and academy set-ups, including six front row players and a minimum of 15 players on senior professional contracts. 

These are the rules, they say, that the EPCR should follow, regardless of the fact they are different to URC and English Premiership standards.

They ignore another paragraph of EPCR’s match operating standards and Covid-19 protocols, which states: “If doubts arise concerning the Covid security of any match, EPCR’s Medical Risk Assessment Committee will be convened to determine whether the match can take place safely. If it is determined that a match cannot be played for whatever reason, EPCR’s Match Result Resolution Panel will be convened to determine the outcome of the match.”

That’s what happened with Leinster-Montpellier. It’s what happened with Toulouse-Cardiff. Neither Leinster or Toulouse was willing to forfeit their match. They named a squad and left the final decision to someone else. Then, they cried foul.

And they have both pointed to what happened in round two, when numerous matches were first postponed, then cancelled and hollered “Inconsistency”, when sudden French government changes on travel rules were to blame.

Meanwhile, French rugby’s united indignation front is not as solid as it appears. Some in the game have spoken out against it.

One of the grandees of the game in France, Castres Olympique president Pierre-Yves Revol said in a statement on the club website: “I fully understand the anger of Didier Lacroix after the cancellation of his match with victory given to Cardiff, all the more since this is in addition to the cancellation of the [Champions Cup] match against Wasps and [the Top 14 game against] Stade Francais [which was decided by] the LNR in very controversial circumstances which he did not fail to denounce. 

“The president of Stade Toulousain probably has good reason to be angry.

“I also noted the strong position against the decision about the Toulouse match of its former president and now President of the LNR René Bouscatel. 

“That’s good, but did someone take offence when Montpellier took five points against Leinster under conditions that seem quite similar to me? All of this is a bit difficult to follow.”

And Bordeaux head coach Christophe Urios pointed out, after his side forfeited their game against Leicester because of a number of positive Covid cases in their camp: “In the Top 14 … if you are able to select 15 professional players [out of a squad of 23], and six front rows, you have to play the match. In the Champions Cup, as far as I know, this rule does not exist. 

“It is at the discretion of a commission which relies, in particular, on experts from the LNR. So even if Toulouse was able to field a good team, they agreed because of the number of players affected during the week that the risk of a cluster was high. So they called off the game. It is at the discretion of the committee.

“There is no scandal. The rule of the Champions Cup is not to postpone a match.”

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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