France and Scotland’s third-round Six Nations fixture on Sunday is at risk of being called off after it was revealed that six more French players, including captain Charles Ollivon, had tested positive for Covid-19.
A total of 11 players from the French squad have now tested positive for the virus, including scrum-half and 2020 Six Nations player of the tournament Antoine Dupont and Baptiste Pesenti, one of the French replacements who tested positive before even arriving in the team camp. However, it is thought the game will go ahead if there is no further surge in positive cases.
A review will take place on Wednesday evening when a decision will be made by the Six Nations Testing Oversight Group (TOG) on whether the fixture can be played, although Scotland are determined that the match should go ahead as scheduled. The French Rugby Federation (FFR) said on Tuesday there had been no further positive results among its playing squad or backroom staff from tests carried out on Monday evening.
But should the situation worsen to the point that it is no longer safe for the game to be staged, then it will be postponed rather than cancelled, organisers said. In that case it is thought a rescheduled game would take place on March 6 or 7.
The Six Nations statement read: “A meeting of the Six Nations Testing Oversight Group took place today to review the situation in France in relation to the Covid-19 outbreak in the French team.
“The TOG was advised by the French Rugby Union representative that all players who returned to the National Training Centre [on Sunday] were tested on arrival and put in isolation pending results. All players who tested positive have now left the training base.
The rest of the squad, all of whom tested negative, are training with restricted movement and no close contact for the next 48 hours. All players and staff will be tested every 24 hours.”
The Scots are are keen for the game to go ahead on Sunday as a postponement could mean more than 10 squad members are unavailable for the rearranged match due to the player-release agreement in place with clubs.
A statement from the Scottish Rugby Union on Monday evening read: "Scotland's national team are continuing their preparations to play France in Paris on Sunday.
"Our players, coaches and fans hope the game can go ahead in the existing tournament schedule."Any postponement will have an impact on the player-release agreement in place with clubs, which could see more than 10 Scotland players unavailable for selection if the game is rearranged.
"We will be working closely with our Six Nations counterparts to press the case for this game to go ahead, should it be medically safe to do so."
Gregor Townsend’s Scotland team are preparing to depart for Paris on Friday as planned and, unless they are told otherwise, will continue to prepare for a 3pm kick-off on Sunday.
The Scottish Rugby Union said in a statement: “Our players, coaches and fans hope the game can go ahead in the existing tournament schedule.
“Any postponement will have an impact on the player-release agreement in place with clubs, which could see more than 10 Scotland players unavailable for selection if the game is rearranged. “We will be working closely with our Six Nations counterparts to press the case for this game to go ahead, should it be medically safe to do so.”
On Monday the French Rugby Federation said that as well as flanker Ollivon, prop Cyril Baille, hooker Peato Mauvaka, second row Romain Taofifenua and full-back Brice Dulin had all tested positive for Covid-19.
Two members of the backroom staff are also thought to have contracted the virus. Last week head coach Fabien Galthie and three other members of the coaching team returned positive tests.
As well as Dupont, centre Arthur Vincent, hooker Julien Marchand, wing Gabin Villiere and prop Mohamed Haouas also tested positive last week.
The players who tested positive have been replaced in the 31-man squad. Three of those who have been called up are uncapped, including Castres hooker Gaetan Barlot and the Bordeaux duo of prop Thierry Paiva and second row Cyril Cazeaux. They are joined by Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos, who has 14 Test appearances.
Ireland have also announced that their squad had two rounds of testing last week following the defeat by France on Feb 14, with all test results being returned as negative.
What are the big implications of a postponement?
If there were to be a further increase of cases and France were unable to play on Sunday, the likely scenario is that organisers will look to reschedule the game for the weekend of March 6 and 7 - currently due to be the second of the Championship’s two fallow weeks.
However, there could be complications for both sides due to World Rugby’s Regulation 9, which stipulates the release of players back to their clubs on the tournament’s down weeks.
The Scots would lose a number of star players who ply their trade in the Gallagher Premiership, including captain Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs), while fly-half Finn Russell would be obliged to return to French outfit Racing 92.
The Premiership has always taken a tough stance on the release of players from clubs back to their international sides and, even if a club were willing to allow players to remain with their international side, the league has the power to overrule them.
Depending on the deal between the FFR and the LNR, which manages the Top 14, France's players may not be released back to their clubs next week. During last week's rest period, players from the French squad took time off rather than returning to their clubs.
If the match were to be postponed a week, Les Bleus would have their 10 players who are not available for selection this weekend back. Yet, such is the depth of the French squad that they should still be able to put out a strong side in Paris this weekend, where they have not lost to Scotland for 22 years.
Due to an availability conflict with their clubs, France fielded a virtual third team in last year's Autumn Nations Cup final against England and came within seconds of victory before losing to a sudden-death penalty in extra-time.