Heineken Champions Cup Round 3: Where do things stand ahead of the weekend's fixtures?
We look at the issues around whether Rounds 3 and 4 of the European Cup pool stages will go ahead as planned, concentrating on what the EPCR has said, fresh doubts on Monday for travelling British clubs, headline games, and confirmation Round 2's postponed games will be recorded 0-0 draws
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 12/01/22 6:09pm
We look at where things stand ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup's Round 3 pool stage fixtures after heavy Round 2 disruption...
Are the Round 3 and Round 4 fixtures going ahead as planned?
The question on everyone's lips ahead of this weekend's Heineken Champions Cup pool clashes across Europe was, are Rounds 3 and 4 likely to go ahead without disruption?
During Round 2 pre-Christmas, a host of fixtures involving British and French clubs were postponed due to the implementation of new government rules in France for travel to and from the UK relating to the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
This came after the EPCR began the season by saying there would be no such postponements, but rather cancellations and automatic 28-0 defeats for the clubs unable to fulfil fixtures.
Such a scenario proved reality for Bristol vs Scarlets in Round 1, as well as Montpellier vs Leinster and Ospreys vs Racing in Round 2, before the decision was taken to call off five further fixtures but decree them as postponed due to Government travel decisions.
However, the other five affected fixtures - plus two EPCR Challenge Cup fixtures which were also postponed due to travel restrictions - have since been cancelled and awarded as 0-0 draws, while all results already determined will stand.
Meanwhile, last Friday, the EPCR confirmed in a statement that Rounds 3 and 4 would go ahead as planned, after a slight change to France's government travel protocols.
"Following dialogue with the leagues and unions, EPCR has been informed that exemptions for what is termed the 'pursuit of an economic activity' which have been put in place by the French government will apply to clubs and match officials who are travelling between France and the UK," the statement read.
"While recognising that these are particularly challenging times for all its stakeholders, EPCR will continue to work with the leagues and unions so that this month's matches can be played safely.
"EPCR is optimistic that this season's tournaments will be played to a successful conclusion."
Fresh doubt on Monday evening?
Despite EPCR assurances, however, fresh doubt emerged on Monday evening as to whether games involving English clubs in France would be able to go ahead.
Bath and Sale are due to play in La Rochelle and Clermont respectively, and Newcastle Falcons at Biarritz on Friday, but according to the clubs, current travel rules mean squads must isolate for 48 hours upon arrival before matches, and then produce a negative Covid-19 test to leave isolation.
As such, all three clubs are reported to have serious concerns about travelling, with worries members of any travelling party may be left stuck in France.
"We're not sure where we stand with it all and to be honest I'm not sure if we can go," Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards said.
"There has so far been no relaxation from the French government regarding the 48-hour isolation requirement and it's very much up in the air. We just don't know where we stand.
"We've heard nothing from EPCR other than a positive email which doesn't actually clarify anything. There's no clarity on isolation, no clarity on the testing, and all they've said is from the competition point of view it's game on. But that's not what the French government have said so far, and we just don't know where we stand."
Bath boss Stuart Hooper, meanwhile, has stated they will fulfil their fixture away to La Rochelle unless the travel restrictions in France are eased.
"For us it's more about the testing in country," Hooper said. "If you have to isolate for 48 hours it's because you have to test out of it, or stay isolating for 10 days. That's absolutely not a condition by which we'd travel to France, as you can be stuck there.
"It's really important you don't look too far ahead, but at the same time you also have to understand what it would mean for the players who might get stuck in France. We don't know what that would look like yet.
"If we all travel over together and someone tests positive, are we all close contacts? Are we then all in a hotel with 40 people together for 10 days? That's a hurdle that definitely needs to be got over very quickly.
"You have seen how that's been a problem for other teams in other competitions. That's a big part of the discussions with EPCR. We still don't have absolute clarity on what we have to do. We hope to hear very soon about what's required. I know EPCR are working hard on it."
Sale boss Alex Sanderson confirmed to media on Wednesday at his press call that the club would be travelling to Clermont to play their game, and had been told they will not have to isolate for 48 hours in France. The EPCR is yet to officially confirm as such.
"All positive - we're going. That is what I have been informed," said Sanderson.
"The message this morning is that we're going and from my understanding, we don't have to stay the 48 hours or PCR test, which was the worry because people would probably have got trapped in France.
"I haven't spoken to EPCR directly but on the back of all the communication we've had this far, we're very positive. We have chartered a plane and sorted the hotel."
A further headache for Sanderson is his South African players based in the UK need different visas to enter France.
"The final hoop to jump through is the Schengen visas which we're still waiting on, but we're very confident they'll come through and the game will go ahead," Sanderson added.
Competition organiser EPCR told Sky Sports it is working with all the relevant authorities to ensure these issues are overcome.
"EPCR is continuing to work with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and the French government to seek improvements to the conditions which currently apply to UK clubs when they travel to France, and to French clubs returning from the UK," a statement read.
"If the 48-hour quarantine period happens to be maintained for matches in Round 3, clubs will be permitted to train during this time provided relevant Covid-19 protocols are observed."
On Monday night, officials from the Ligue Nationale de Rugby were said to be lobbying the French authorities to relax the 48-hour isolation rule.
Which fixtures from Round 2 were postponed?
In total, five fixtures were lost from the schedule in Round 2 in the form of postponements involving British and French clubs: Bath vs La Rochelle, Sale vs Clermont, Scarlets vs Bordeaux, Toulouse vs Wasps, Stade Francais vs Bristol.
A further two could not be played, as Covid outbreaks for Leinster and Ospreys meant they had to forfeit their fixtures vs Montpellier and Racing 92 respectively.
In all, just five games out of 12 took place on the pitch in Round 2: Ulster 27-22 Northampton, Harlequins 43-17 Cardiff, Glasgow 22-7 Exeter, Munster 19-13 Castres, Leicester 29-23 Connacht.
What are the standout fixtures? And who is on course for the knockouts?
Looking to the Round 3 fixtures on paper, Top 14's Castres - who sit third in France's domestic league at present - host two-time European champions Munster on Friday evening for a record 18th time - no fixture in the history of the competition has been played more.
Other standout ties see Connacht host Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers in Galway on Saturday, with the Irish province never having made the European Cup knockouts before but off the back of a bonus-point win over Stade Francais and losing bonus-point at Welford Road so far.
The Tigers themselves are two wins from two and well on course for the Round of 16, as are Munster at present with two wins to their name too. Ulster and defending Premiership champions Quins also are two from two, while France's Racing 92 sit on 10 points after picking up a Covid-forfeit win vs Ospreys.
2020 European Cup winners Exeter Chiefs have one of the biggest games of the weekend as they host Glasgow at Sandy Park, having lost to the Scots last month.
On Sunday, Leinster dare not lose at home to Montpellier having been handed a 28-0 Covid-inflicted defeat in France before Christmas, while Northampton need to beat Ulster at Franklins Gardens to maintain any chance of progressing.
What of Round 2's postponed games?
After initial suggestions and intentions to replay the five postponed Champions Cup games from Round 2, Tuesday brought news that all the games would rather be confirmed as 0-0 draws, with two points allocated for each club.
"Following a series of meetings of the board of EPCR, it has been regrettably decided to cancel the postponed fixtures in Round 2 of this season's Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup," a statement read.
"The Board also authorised the EPCR Executive to determine the outcome of the fixtures as provided for in the rules of the tournaments and the EPCR Executive has decided that the appropriate solution is to record the results in each of the five Heineken Champions Cup and the two EPCR Challenge Cup fixtures in question as 0-0 draws with two match points awarded to each club.
"The options of modifying the tournament formats and/or rescheduling the matches were deliberated in great detail by all parties, however, in an increasingly complex fixture calendar due to Covid-19, it was regrettably decided that the only choice in the circumstances was to cancel the matches."
As mentioned above, Round 2 also saw matches called off due to positive Covid-19 tests at clubs prior to the travel restrictions being put in place, including Leinster's trip to Montpellier and Ospreys' clash with Racing 92, which were recorded as 28-0 defeats for the Irish and Welsh side respectively.
However, EPCR drew a distinction between those and other matches cancelled, adding decisions already determined would stand.
"On the basis that none of the clubs involved were in a position to play once the EPCR Board had postponed the seven matches due to the new restrictive travel measures, the only option open to the EPCR Executive under the provisions of the Match Result Resolution Matrix was to record the results as 0-0 draws and to award two match points to each club," an EPCR statement read.
"A distinction should be drawn between the decisions in respect of the seven Round 2 matches in question and other tournament fixtures which were previously cancelled due to Covid-19 outbreaks or forced isolations affecting player availability.
"Those previously cancelled fixtures could not have been played as scheduled under any circumstances, whereas the clubs involved in the Round 2 matches in question were all cleared and available to contest the matches.
"Therefore, the determined outcomes of the three previously cancelled or forfeited Heineken Champions Cup fixtures, and the one EPCR Challenge Cup fixture, will stand."
Marcus Smith of Harlequins is this season's leading scorer with 28 points from two matches, while Jack Carty (Connacht) and John Cooney (Ulster) are in joint-second place on 24 points.
Glasgow Warriors' Australian back row, Jack Dempsey, tops the carrying charts with 31 from his two matches.
Old European rivals Munster and Castres will meet for a record 18th time in the tournament when they clash at Stade Pierre Fabre on Friday.
Leinster, who host Montpellier on Sunday, have won 10 tournament matches in a row at the RDS Arena, with their last defeat coming against Wasps in the 2015/16 season.
Wenceslas Lauret (Racing 92), Jonny Gray (Exeter Chiefs) and Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins) are the joint-leading try scorers to date with three apiece. Gray has also made the most tackles with an impressive 34 while Dombrandt tops the turnover charts with five.
The Ulster pair, Michael Lowry and James Hume, lead the way in metres made with Lowry on 220 while Hume is next best on 214.
If selected, Toulouse and France second row Thibaud Flament - who went to university at Loughborough - will be up against his old club Wasps in Saturday's contest at the Coventry Building Society Arena.
Heineken Champions Cup fixtures Round 3
Fri, Jan 14:
Cardiff vs Harlequins (8pm)
Castres vs Munster (8pm)
Sat, Jan 15:
Wasps vs Toulouse (1pm)
Ospreys vs Racing 92 (3.15pm)
Connacht vs Leicester Tigers (3.15pm)
Exeter Chiefs vs Glasgow Warriors (5.30pm)
La Rochelle vs Bath (5.30pm)
Bristol Bears vs Stade Francais (8pm)
Sun, Jan 16:
Leinster vs Montpellier (1pm)
Northampton Saints vs Ulster (3.15pm)
Bordeaux-Begles vs Scarlets (3.15pm)
Clermont Auvergne vs Sale Sharks (5.30pm)