James Harrington looks at what it all means for local players and athletes coming in from other countries

Sports minister gives French rugby vaccination clarification

Unvaccinated athletes will be able to participate in major competitions in France such as the Six Nations, even if a new health bill comes into force because “the health bubble of major sporting events will allow it”, Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu has said.

She was speaking in response to a question about tennis player Novak Djokovic, but her comments will have implications for the upcoming European and Six Nations competitions.

Maracineanu told broadcaster France Info that a new health bill currently passing through the French Parliament would not affect international athletes coming into France for competitions – even though it will have implications for players in the Top 14 and ProD2.

“Any player, any sportsman who trains in France, whether French or foreign, if they are domiciled on our territory, will have to have a vaccination pass at all times to enter a sports facility,” Maracineanu said.

“On the other hand, when there is a competition, there are health protocols imposed for major events by the federations in question, which are added to the protocol of the country.”

Sports minister gives French rugby vaccination clarification

Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu (Getty Images)

A meeting with the Comité interministériel de crise (CIC) is scheduled for Monday, she said “to define concretely, precisely, competition by competition, what can happen in the weeks to come”. 

The meeting will also address the issue of a ‘sports exemption’ for unvaccinated athletes who enter the country for competition and who would be, under current rules, subject to quarantine.

The health bill – which is due to come into force later in January – will require French health pass holders to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, rather than be able to show a negative test result that is less than 24 hours old, as is currently the case, effectively transforming the health pass into a vaccine pass.

After it passed the Assembly, Prime Minister Jean Castex said he hoped the bill would be fast-tracked through the Senate so it can come into force on January 15, the weekend the third rounds of the Champions and Challenge Cups are scheduled to kick off. That date is optimistic, but not impossible.

Under current Covid-19 rules in France, entry to bars, cafes, restaurants, and cultural and sporting venues requires visitors to carry a document which confirms they are up to date with their vaccines, have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months, or have returned a negative test in the past 24 hours.

The bill proposes that only vaccinated people, which includes having a booster within seven months after being fully vaccinated, or the recently recovered, will continue to have those benefits. Crucially, the negative test option would be removed.

Sources at the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) had believed that, if the new bill made it compulsory for venues to require a vaccine pass for entry, the rules would also apply to visiting teams in European competition. 

But the Minister’s comments on Friday indicate that health bubble rules for athletes at these events would be sufficient.

Until the bill is passed, however, the EPCR, FFR, Six Nations Rugby and LNR remain in limbo. “This is a subject on which we cannot yet give an opinion because the bill concerning the vaccination pass is currently pending at the National Assembly,” the FFR said.

Sports minister gives French rugby vaccination clarification

Stade Francais’ Fijian wing Waisea Nayacalevu (Getty Images)

The LNR has previously claimed 98 percent of players and staff at Top 14 clubs are up to date with their Covid-19 vaccines. But up to eight players, reports say, prefer to undergo routine daily tests.

Despite the exemption for athletes based beyond French borders, Maricineanu said that professional athletes in France would still have to be vaccinated or face the prospect of being suspended without pay. For them, “the status of employee prevails,” she said. “Like all others, in all sectors of society, the employment contract can and may be suspended, as well as the remuneration, if current regulations are not respected.”

One currently unvaccinated player, Stade Francais’ Waisea Nayacalevu, told the Rugbyrama website on Wednesday that the planned rule change would leave him little choice. “At worst, I would take the vaccine,” he said. “If the law changes, if the French government validates the vaccination pass, I will have to take it. But getting vaccinated is the last option for me.”

He said that he had twice contracted Covid, but had felt no need for vaccination. It had been a personal choice, he said.

Nayacalevu, who was one of the Fiji players who objected to a pro-vaccine message on the international side’s shirts earlier this year, said: “It is not our job, as rugby players, to push people to get vaccinated. Leave that to the politicians and health officials. We are here to play rugby, that’s all.”

Meanwhile, the EPCR is apparently ready to publicly confirm that the next two rounds of European competitions will go ahead as scheduled. 

Midi Olympique’s Marc Duzan tweeted on Friday morning that European rugby bosses had informed the Presidents of the Top 14 that the next two rounds would go “as planned”, after “progress” had been made on “travel between the UK and France”.

Hope that both competitions will go ahead as planned first flickered after the French government on Thursday, January 6, relaxed certain travel restrictions with the UK that had been imposed in mid-December in a ultimately failed bid to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. 

As well as an enlarged category of “essential work reasons”, elite athletes are permitted to travel for competitions, with the agreement of the French sports ministry. L’Equipe reported that a crucial meeting between the ministry and European rugby organisers has been arranged.

Further changes to current French restrictions – including the ‘sports exemption’ for unvaccinated athletes are expected in the coming days – but it is still unknown whether British rugby fans will be able to travel to see their teams in European or Six Nations action, while the question of crowd sizes also remains a consideration.

The surge in the Omicron variant, which saw daily cases surge past 300,000 in France this week, has prompted the government to temporarily impose strict limits on crowd sizes. The latest round of the Top 14 will be played in front of crowds limited to 5,000 in open-air stadiums, while indoor venues – Racing 92’s La Defense Arena – are reduced to 2,000.

Sports minister gives French rugby vaccination clarification

How will the Six Nations be impacted? (Getty Images)

The rules will be in place for the scheduled European matches, but they are due to end before the Six Nations, when France hosts Italy, Ireland and England.

Some MPs and senators want crowd sizes to be determined on the capacity of the ground. The government has so far resisted attempts to include an amendment changing the limits on crowd sizes. Health Minister Olivier Veran told the Journal du Dimanche this week that calculating crowd sizes on stadium capacity was much more difficult to monitor.

Current limits are in place throughout January, and the FFR hopes they will be lifted in time for the annual international tournament. The matches against Ireland and England are sold out, while tickets had been selling well for Les Bleus’ opener against Italy. 

There’s a reason bosses at the FFR are crossing their collective fingers. It has taken out insurance against postponement or cancellation – but if matches go ahead in front of heavily reduced crowds, the shortfall will be counted into the millions of euros. 

“We are dependent on governmental measures, which is why, like the Six Nations Committee, we do not yet have a precise vision of public access to the matches for the Tournament,” the FFR said.

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