Rugby and football scramble to come to terms with threat of Omicron variant

Postponement is not an option for the European Champions Cup as rugby union finds itself on the frontline in dealing with the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Organisers of club rugby’s elite northern hemisphere tournament are to insist teams do all they can to stage fixtures, when the Champions Cup group stage begins in 10 days’ time. This could include listing academy scholars in matchday squads if positive Covid tests and quarantine measures limit player availability.

In the event of a club being unable or unwilling to raise a side, it is understood they will forfeit the match 28-0.

The prospect of an interrupted schedule loomed on Monday, with fallout from the postponement of two rounds of fixtures in the South African leg of the United Rugby Championship continuing to reverberate.

Cardiff Rugby remain stranded in South Africa after reporting two positive Covid cases. A new round of tests have discovered no new cases among the players but quarantine rules mean the team must stay in South Africa, a situation club officials are hoping to rectify. A similar fate has befallen Munster who recorded one positive case this weekend.

Cardiff are due to host Toulouse in the Champions Cup on 11 December, while Munster are scheduled to travel to Wasps a day later. Two more URC teams, Scarlets and the Italian side Zebre, have managed to leave South Africa, with the Welsh side quarantining in Belfast. Their Champions Cup opener is on 11 December at Bristol.

URC organisers said: “Having helped to repatriate two teams, [we continue] to support the two remaining teams in South Africa. There is a widespread network of stakeholders working vigorously to ensure the safe return of both Cardiff Rugby and Munster Rugby as soon as possible and keep them comfortable at this time.”

A spokesperson for European Professional Club Rugby, organisers of the Champions Cup, said: “We are monitoring the situation and are in contact with the clubs.”

A lack of flexibility in the calendar means that EPCR cannot rearrange and are faced with two options – ensure matches go ahead or enforce forfeits – but any decisions may be left to the last minute as much remains uncertain about the threat posed by Omicron, including what measures governments will take to limit its spread.

Many countries have added southern African nations to their travel red lists. In Europe, Switzerland has also placed restrictions on UK nationals, with vaccinated travellers expected to quarantine for 10 days in the country.

That has already caused problems for Manchester United. They are due to host Young Boys of Bern in the Champions League next week, but it is unclear whether the players will be exempt from quarantine on their return from England. Under Uefa rules, if a match cannot be staged in the designated country then it falls to the host club to find a neutral venue.

In domestic football, the Premier League remain confident of the schedule continuing as planned, with no intimation of new measures on player protocols or supporter restrictions coming from government.

On Monday, the English top flight announced seven positive Covid tests among players and staff, the highest one-off total since August.