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'It doesn't give us a competitive team': Sale fear French red tape

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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Sale boss Alex Sanderson fears his Gallagher Premiership team could have their European hopes dashed by French government red tape. Numerous round two fixtures between English and French clubs were postponed last month due to tightened pandemic restrictions and with Sale now due to play in Clermont on January 16 in round three, Sanderson is worried that his squad’s South African contingent and other players who haven’t had a double jab vaccine won’t be allowed to travel. 

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According to Sanderson, the feedback from an EPCR committee meeting on Tuesday was that the round three fixtures schedule was set to still go ahead as planned but no assurances were given that the likes of Sale would be able to travel at full strength due to potential Schengen visa and vaccination issues.  

Currently, travel to France is restricted to essential only and those who travel must be double jabbed. It’s a situation that has left Sanderson fearing that the group phase in this year’s Champions Cup won’t now be completed, especially as there is already no room in the schedule to accommodate last month’s postponed games which include the visit of Clermont to Sale who started the tournament with an away win at Ospreys.  

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Joyeux Noel & The European Dilemma | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 11
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Joyeux Noel & The European Dilemma | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 11

“It’s a high degree of uncertainty that it [Sale’s trip to France] will happen but I 110 per cent want it to happen and we have already started the planning process around how we build our game up,” explained Sanderson at a Tuesday evening Sale media briefing. “We just tell them [the players] that it is on and it is to all intents and purposes – we have been told it is going ahead but all these circumstances surrounding its ability to go ahead are still at the moment very hazy and speculative.

“There is a certain type of visa that you get if you are South African which has to be approved via French customs, government or whatever, and they have restricted travel (for everyone) to essential only. They would have to fast-track and approve these Schengen visas in record time. Apparently, it is only a stamp but I don’t know, it’s out of hands entirely and in the lap of European rugby and their ability to push it through and the French government then to approve it. It has got to go through a few hoops first.”

The match going ahead with Sale not being allowed to field their full squad would be a major headache for Sanderson. “It doesn’t give us a competitive team. Nine of our squad wouldn’t be approved and that isn’t including those lads who haven’t been double jabbed of which there is one or two and we are not the only ones. We [English teams] are all in a similar boat here.

“The focus is on this weekend (away to Bristol in the Premiership on Friday) but you have hotels to book and visas to push through and the EPCR met today as a committee to resolve the question of whether or not the games will be on. Right now, the answer is yes, the games are on. 

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“Just from our point of view quite, how they are going to get the Schengen visas through for next week I don’t know. It is going to go through levels of government which is quite high up the echelon. Usually, other sport bubbles follow the football but because the football is in February, they [EPCR] are having to carve their own path as to what is going to be allowed from the French government. 

“I 100 per cent want it to be on. Players are not rugby trainers but we can’t field a competitive side without picking our South African players and bringing them into France. Can’t field one but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Last season’s pool section of the Champions Cup was scrapped, resulting in organisers restarting in late spring with a round-of-16 knockout format. The plan for this campaign was to play four rounds of pool matches before a round-of-16 knockout but with that schedule now doubtful, Sanderson is curious what the EPCR might come up with as their Plan B if required.

“Doomed is a big word. If I say yes (the Champions Cup is doomed), that will come up as a title. It has happened before: ‘Sanderson thinks Europe is doomed’. So I am not going to say doomed but I do think it is in trouble and it is not its own fault. We have had to deal internally with Covid and all the issues and curveballs that come up with it – we missed the Newcastle game just a few weeks back. 

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“But there is no space in the season to reschedule these games. There is none so how do you continue with the tournament in its own structure? I can’t say you can. If we can’t field our best team to go to France and then/or that game isn’t played potentially because it is still slightly up in the air, I can’t see how you can continue with the format. 

“So they will have to come up with something interesting but that is well above my pay grade how to devise the ways and means for the best teams to play in Europe but certainly we want to do it, we want to play the best teams.”

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