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.

Top 14 Preview: Bordeaux, Toulouse and the Bleus-heavy battle for France’s Christmas number one

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s routinely tough in the upper echelons of the Top 14, but right now – heading into a weekend in which second entertains first and in which the Christmas leader will be decided – it’s even tougher further down the ladder. 

While 10 points separate leaders Toulouse from third-placed Montpellier, only one more point separates fourth-placed La Rochelle – currently in a post-season home play-off slot – and bottom-of-the-table Biarritz.

There’s just four points between 14th and ninth, and five between the relegation zone and the play-off places. It was about as close at the unwanted-business end of the table after 11 rounds of the ferociously tight 2014-15 Top 14 season, when – in the end – a usually plentiful 52 league points was not enough to save Bayonne from the drop.

There are still 15 rounds of the current campaign to go – and plenty can happen between the here and now and the there and then of the first weekend in June 2022 when the regular season ends – but this campaign is just starting to threaten to be a nail-biting classic of the genre when survival and play-off places were up for grabs all the way to the end.

For Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports has unsurprisingly picked the two evening games. Bordeaux-Toulouse on the final Saturday before European rugby kicks off should be a belter, and there’ll be plenty of action when Stade Francais entertain La Rochelle on Sunday night. But URC and Premiership club analysts may be missing the usual four matches a weekend as the leagues career towards a two-week European meeting of styles

Usual caveat: The kick-off times listed here are Paris time.

Saturday, December 4

Lyon v Brive (kick off 3pm)

Stadium Gerland

Lyon, having just got Mathieu Bastareaud back, have to get used to life without him again, after just 84 minutes of gametime following a 10-month injury lay-off.

Four minutes into his second match, against former club Toulon at Stade Mayol last Saturday, Bastareaud slipped, and was taken off the pitch several minutes later on a stretcher. The club’s worst fears were confirmed on Monday – surgery on ruptured tendons in his left knee failed and he’d also ruptured the tendons in his right knee for good measure.

The 33-year-old took to social media to explain his health situation, and – with his contract up at the end of the season – to say that he would take time to reflect on his future following surgery on both knees on Thursday.

In Bastareaud’s absence, captain Jordan Taufua is likely to return to the middle of the backrow for a must-win match against 10th-placed Brive, flanked by Beka Saginadze and Dylan Cretin, but Lima Sopoaga has not made the wider group after picking up a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s match at Stade Mayol.

Brive, meanwhile, welcomed Dylan Lamb – Pat’s nephew and Ben’s cousin – to the Stadium de Brive this week on a short-term medical joker contract. He’ll probably be watching his new team-mates from the stands…

Castres v Racing 92 (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

“Monday’s video review session must have been spicy,” Castres’ lineout coach Yannick Caballero said of the fallout from Racing’s 37-14 loss at home to Bordeaux last Sunday.

Caballero knows Racing manager Laurent Travers well, having played under him at both Montauban and Castres – and knows how much that the scale and the substance of that defeat will have hurt.

But his focus is on Castres rather than Racing, who have been building on the solid foundations of a ‘good defeat’. 

Castres are, unsurprisingly, expecting a backlash from the Franciliens, who are expected to make a number of changes.

Teddy Thomas may be dropped following his ‘come and get me’ gesture to hat-trick hero Santiago Cordero last weekend, while Gael Fickou, Finn Russell, Kurtley Beale, Camille Chat, Hassane Kollingar and Georges-Henri Colombe – who all played last weekend are all expected to be rested for European challenges to come.

The hosts have good reason to be concerned. Racing won’t want to forget that defeat. They’ll want to use it to perform better.

Club president Jacky Lorenzetti did not mince his words after last week’s loss. In an interview with L’Equipe, he said: “When I left the Arena on Sunday, I was thinking more about not going down than about qualifying.

“The  second half [against Bordeaux] was not worthy of a team that has the ambition to win something, or even to qualify … Today, the priority is to find our rugby, our marrow. We are far from it.”

Weather conditions suggest this won’t be an all-out running rugby fest. There’s a reason Racing were training with a wet ball this week.

Clermont v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

While a number of clubs have started announcing early signings, most of the recent news out of Clermont has been outgoing. Camille Lopez wants out from the final year of his contract – even if his final destination may now be under question after a reported deal with Biarritz remains resolutely unsigned, to the very public ire of the Basque side’s president. 

Toulon – now under Franck Azema – is said to be his new preferred choice, although ambitious ProD2 high-fliers Bayonne may have made a late bid for his services, which would fit in with Lopez’s publicly declared wish to return to the southwest.

And now, scrum-half Morgan Parra has revealed that his future is somewhere other than Stade Marcel Michelin, a venue he has called home since joining from Bourgoin in 2009. He had been offered a two-year playing contract then a year on staff, but decided that he wanted a new adventure. Reports in France say he’ll join Stade Francais.

Jono Gibbes’ brief is to inject new, youthful, blood into the Clermont set-up – via, as much as possible, the academy. Inward signings are currently non-existent, while about 16 senior and 19 academy contracts are up for renewal – including that of winger Cheikh Tiberghien, who scored twice in last week’s defeat at Perpignan.

Gibbes will be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to mould his new squad in his image – and it’s a safe bet he’ll be determined to keep Tiberghien, but losing the experience of Lopez and Parra at the same time has to be tough.

His first task is to get his squad to bounce back from the heartache of last week’s defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss at Perpignan. A return to home soil will be a relief – and a convincing win over Biarritz will be just what the fans ordered ahead of next weekend’s ‘derby’ trip to Brive.

The bad news is that Wesley Fofana’s long-expected return this weekend after three months out looks like it has been delayed. He is now not expected to feature against the league’s basement side.

Gibbes will also be without lock and walking sanction Tomas Lavanini, banned for five weeks following his red card against Ireland in the November internationals and will miss Clermont’s first two Champions Cup games. 

Meanwhile, conditions could be interesting in volcano country…

Montpellier v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

News that the currently injured centre Arthur Vincent had signed a two-year contract extension despite strong interest from Toulouse will have pleased Montpellier fans this week, after their awkward win over Castres left them with mixed emotions.

Vincent is due to begin rehabilitation work next week, starting with his upper body, after suffering a cruciate ligament rupture in October. He’s still a long way from a return to even serious training, but it’s a first step that will also please the fans, as they look to build on last week’s four-pointer against Occitanie coast derby rivals Perpignan.

The visitors, meanwhile, keep proving they are not the walkovers of their last Top 14 stint, and are determined to prove that they are not just here to make up numbers.

But, it would be a surprise if Philippe Saint-Andre’s side don’t win. He’s took a squad and built a team in a matter of months. And now, he’s taken a team and built a serious contender for the play-offs, one that now knows how to play a mediocre match and still win.

He’s supposed to return to the director of rugby’s office at some point – but he’s making it increasingly difficult for Mohed Altrad to boot him back upstairs.

Pau v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

News came this week that Cheslin Kolbe had finally started taking part in group training at new club Toulon after recovering from a knee injury that had ruled him out of South Africa’s November northern hemisphere tour, while France captain Charles Ollivon has also resumed individual training as he recovers from an ACL injury.

Neither, obviously, will be involved in the trip to Pau – but the hope is that Kolbe will be ready to run out in Toulon colours for the first time in the Challenge Cup match against Zebre at Stade Mayol on December 17 – an early Christmas present for fans who are daring to dream again Toulon’s improved team performance in last weekend’s win over Lyon.

The players, too, have noticed a difference since Franck Azema took over from Patrice Collazo just before the international break. “I don’t know if we can talk about a psychological shift, but I believe the group needed to move forward, to start again on a new road,” centre Julien Hériteau said after the Lyon game.

“In the game we didn’t change everything, we kept the overall framework but Franck brought in small details. And it worked.”

Toulon, then, head to Pau, with a new positive attitude, and players on the road back from injury. It’s a heady mix that could cause the hosts a few problems. The win over Lyon was not a benchmark – but it was, perhaps, a seasonal turning point.

A victory on the road this week – ahead of a bye week in the Challenge Cup and almost unthinkable earlier in the season – would prove that theory.

Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

The undisputed big match of the weekend sees second host first, with the Top 14 Christmas lead at stake, as the European break puts the French domestic top flight on hold until December 26-27.

Having rested almost all his French internationals for last weekend’s hard-fought and atypical win over Brive, in which Toulouse were kept tryless for the first time this season, Ugo Mola is expected to bring them the rest back on Saturday night. So expect to see Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Matthis Lebel, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Peato Mauvaka and – perhaps – Cyrille Baille in the starting line-up.

It all raises the glorious prospect of a fly-half battle for the ages, as Christophe Urios fights outrageous talent with outrageous talent by bringing back Matthieu Jalibert after a week off. He will have a point to prove after Ntamack regained the French 10 jersey for the win over the All Blacks, after switching out to inside centre for the earlier games against Argentina and Georgia.

Ntamack, meanwhile, who prefers wearing 10 to 12 these days, will want to prove again that he’s Dupont’s halfback partner for the long-term at club and country level. 

Should be tasty at Stade Chaban Delmas, a ground that now seems certain to be Bordeaux’s for the foreseeable, after club president Laurent Marti firmly and publicly rejected overtures from the managers of the debt-ridden Matmut Atlantique to relocate there.

Sunday, December 5

Stade Francais v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

A struggling Stade Francais against a momentum-building La Rochelle. It should be easy to call – the two sides are separated by 10 points and eight places…

Stade can pull it out of the hat on occasion. They did it with 14 players against Castres early in the season. They showed glimpses last week in defeat at Biarritz. But too few. Far too few.

This season has been mostly a raging disappointment for the big-money Parisians. Club owner Hans-Peter Wild and his rugby director Thomas Lombard are repeatedly keen to point out the positives, but there’s no denying league position. Stade are 12th. One place – and one point – out of the relegation zone. 

Even the long-term commitment of Sekou Macalou, who signed a deal to stay at Stade until June 2027 this week, can’t hide that inconvenient truth.

Much depends on the result of this match. A win, and there will be a glimmer of a reason for optimism heading into the Champions Cup fortnight and matches against Connacht and Bristol Bears. Lose, and Stade will be perilously close to pushing the survival mode button.

This is definitely not a time to be playing a La Rochelle side that is starting to find its feet.

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.