Since Thursday night, the debate has rumbled on. Almost two weeks after Sale’s Premiership Rugby Cup victory over Harlequins, it emerged that 16 players and three members of staff had tested positive for Covid-19.
As rugby neared its return in August, Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) stated that games would be cancelled if a certain amount of cases of Covid-19 cropped up.
We saw at the weekend that the mere threat of the virus to the Northampton Saints players, who lined up against the Sharks last Tuesday, meant that those individuals would have to self-isolate.
We already knew that Saints were struggling with their props and the nature of scrummaging left them with no way of playing their game against Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites were awarded a bonus point victory which enabled them to leapfrog Northampton in the process.
The reason as to why Northampton must forfeit their game, with no confirmed cases, and Sale, with 19, still have the opportunity to progress up the league table has been the subject of much intrigue and outrage. Many have questioned the integrity of the competition and those who are paid to ensure it.
Alan Solomons and his Worcester side were due to travel to Manchester at the weekend, with the South African Director of Rugby stating that the preservation of human life must take precedence.
“It is certainly not ideal to say the least,” Solomons said. “We all know the effect that the pandemic has had across all walks of life, not just rugby. It has had a massive impact. All of us understand that the health and safety of individuals is absolutely paramount.
“That is why we had lockdown in the first instance, didn’t we because we felt that we didn’t have the facilities to be able to deal with everyone and then, we were trying to increase the capacity of the NHS to be able to deal with it. We are in the midst of a second wave, that is clear. The north of England is particularly affected, I quote and it seems to be correct, there is a lockdown at the University of Manchester as 350 students have tested positive.
"People have to be respectful and responsible when they're not in the training environment.— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 4, 2020
"There's nowhere to go. They're very responsible and they wouldn't do that."
Steve Diamond dismisses claims that Sale Sharks players partied after their #PremRugbyCup win.#GPTonight pic.twitter.com/70F6j0dER4
“I read another report that people in Manchester are concerned about going out shopping so it is a serious situation and one has to take it seriously. You have to err on the side of caution because you are dealing with human life.”
In Monday morning’s press conference, Solomons revealed that Steve Diamond rang him on Friday to inform him directly of the positive tests. Initially, the former lawyer was unsure whether the game would take place, but now he must prepare for a fixture that could yet be cancelled by the powers that be at Premiership Rugby, the RFU and Public Health England.
Within the past week, Champions Cup finalists Racing 92 have had nine positive tests. With two weeks until their European final in Bristol, the side have been stepped down from all duties and their game against La Rochelle was pushed back to a later date.
Of course, the Top 14 and the Premiership are at very different stages of their respective seasons, but the Ligue Nationale de Rugby were definitive in their decision making and with the guidelines they set out when restarting domestic competition.
“We have a situation what has arisen where Sale have 19 individuals who have tested positive for the virus,” Solomons stated. “Sixteen of them are players and three members of staff. That is certainly not an individual case. That is a cluster, in my view, and that is obviously fairly serious. It is certainly a red flag to have 19 people test positive.
“You have got to have a look at what they did in France. Racing had far less people, they closed down their facility and quarantined everyone. Coming back from the red flag pointer of 19 people testing positive, you have got to say that it lends credence to what I am reading in the written media and social media about there being late night celebrations after the Premiership Cup.
“This is just stuff I am reading, that there was partying going on at the University of Manchester. I have no knowledge of this, but what is concerning is that Manchester University have 350 students that have tested positive, they are in lockdown at the moment.“The north of England, including Manchester of course, is an area where the virus is on the increase. You have got a second wave of the virus, it is particularly impacting the north and Manchester and it has impacted the University of Manchester. All of these factors have got to be taken into consideration and the 19 people that have tested positive have got to be taken into consideration by Premiership Rugby, the RFU and Public Health England in making a decision where the overriding factor is the safety of players, staff and the families of players and staff.”
It is not only Worcester who are uncertain of this week’s game. So far, we know that Exeter Chiefs and Wasps will have home semi-finals and if Sale win, they could be one of the opponents that they face on Saturday.
Last week, Rob Baxter was quoted in saying that he believed the testing of players for coronavirus should be stopped due to the low amount of positive results coming back. Less than seven days after saying those words, stood on the touchline of the Ricoh Arena, Exeter’s Director of Rugby believed that it is difficult to say whether or not the game between Sale and Worcester should have been cancelled.
“I don’t know what happened,” Baxter said. “This is the thing, there is so much confidentiality, for obvious reasons around medical things. I don’t know which players have failed Covid tests, I don’t know how the testing procedure happened because none of us know. I think it is almost impossible to say whether we are surprised or not, if you see what I mean?
“If it was 16 academy lads that have been training relatively separate from the first team, it seems different to if it is first team, frontline players. I think until we actually know what happened and we know the decision, I think saying whether or not it should have been postponed is just an impossible question to answer.”