Premiership clubs have called for organisers to change their rules to avoid a repeat of the crisis that has engulfed the league’s knockout stages while the Rugby Football Union has issued a rebuke of how the outbreak of Covid-19 at Sale has been handled.
Sale’s postponed match against Worcester was called off on Wednesday morning, less than two hours before the Warriors were due to board the team bus. Premiership Rugby had confirmed eight new cases at the club, taking the total to 27 in less than a week. Worcester have been awarded a 20-0 victory, leaving Sale devastated after missing out on the semi‑finals. Bath qualified in fourth place.
Premiership Rugby has come under considerable fire for initially postponing the match, having cancelled Northampton’s trip to Gloucester on Sunday with a number of Saints players having to isolate, having faced Sale last week. Worcester welcomed the decision and had maintained strong reservations about playing the match, questioning why Sale were able to select 13 players who had appeared against Northampton.
The RFU has been investigating how the outbreak occurred at Sale, looking in particular at their track and trace process. On Wednesday Sale again strongly denied any suggestions that any of their players had partied in Manchester following their Premiership Cup final win against Harlequins on 21 September. The players were tested on 23 September and Sale say they were given the all clear, only to be told they had a false negative on 26 September. They played Northampton three days later before receiving the results of 19 positive cases, including 16 players, last Friday.
The RFU is looking closely at that series of events and said: “The RFU has concerns about how this situation has developed and will be making recommendations to PRL and the Professional Game Board to avoid future uncertainty for clubs and players as well as protecting the reputation of the game.”
The Worcester director of rugby, Alan Solomons, was among those calling for the Premiership to adopt a similar rule to that in France’s Top 14. There if a club receives three or more positive tests within seven days of a match, it is automatically cancelled. “The key for the whole matter is that the right decision was made,” Solomons said. “That [rule] is exactly what they have in France and at Racing 92, when they had a particular number they immediately closed the facility and postponed the game. That’s something that needs to be considered. The experts have to decide if there’s a particular number. France do it and there certainly seems to be some sort of merit in it.”
Racing 92 face Exeter in the Champions Cup final a week on Saturday and that match is increasingly likely to go ahead after the Top 14 side’s match with Toulouse was given the green light. Before that Exeter now face Bath on Saturday – Wasps host Bristol in the other semi-final – and Baxter believes the Premiership disruption could be avoided in the future by adopting a similar approach to France.
“Has it been frustrating? Of course it has been,” Baxter said. “Is there anything PRL could have done to change the process? In hindsight yes but it doesn’t work like that. What it has highlighted is there probably needs to be another line of regulations for a multiple outbreak. You can’t blame Sale for saying ‘we can fulfil the fixture’ when the regulations say that if you can then you can play. Now we might need to add in another paragraph. I suspect that will happen before the new season.”
Sale do not intend to pursue any action over their false negative, while Worcester are not considering any themselves after missing out on Champions Cup qualification.
The Sharks have insisted they have not been in breach of the strict Covid protocols. “Throughout the last six months we have followed the official guidelines and protocols given to us by the RFU and Premiership Rugby, with rigorous testing regimes and safety measures in place to protect everyone connected to the game,” read a club statement. “Sale Sharks is confident the audit carried out by the RFU over the past few days will confirm this absolutely.”
PRL has said it will review its rules at the end of the season but expressed some reservations about introducing a threshold number of cases that would mean automatic cancellation.
Upon confirming Sale v Worcester had been called off the PRL chief executive, Darren Childs, said: “We stated there was no room in the calendar for matches to be postponed but last weekend the health of everyone involved took precedent to ensure the Sale Sharks squad could be tested again, following the initial positive tests. Those concerns were proved today when we saw an additional eight positive tests. People fight hard for points in the Premiership and for a place in the semi-final but everyone agrees this has to take second place to people’s health and wellbeing.”