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'Too much risk': Quarantined Scarlets hand Bristol a 28-0 walkover

By Liam Heagney

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The new European Champions Cup season has got underway with a depressing thud, tournament organisers EPCR awarding Bristol a 28-0 walkover win after Scarlets informed them they were unable to field a sufficient team for this Saturday’s game at Ashton Gate. The Welsh region were one of the four URC teams caught up in the mess that was arriving in South Africa a fortnight ago only to find their planned league matches suddenly called off.

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It was the emergence of the Omicron strain of the Covid-19 virus that forced the travelling URC teams – Scarlets, Cardiff, Munster and Zebre – into quarantine and it has now resulted in Scarlets, who had since been sheltering in a Belfast hotel, into forfeiting their opening European game in England.   

An EPCR statement on Tuesday confirmed: “EPCR have been informed by Scarlets that due to player welfare concerns and the club’s inability to safely field a matchday squad, they are not in a position to fulfil their Heineken Champions Cup round one fixture against Bristol Bears scheduled for Saturday, December 11, at Ashton Gate. 

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How Munster have handled their quarantine
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How Munster have handled their quarantine

“The fixture in Pool B is therefore cancelled with Bristol Bears awarded the match on a 28-0, five-match points basis in accordance with the tournament rules. Scarlets, Bristol Bears and EPCR used their best endeavours to stage the match. However, this has not been possible and it is regrettable that the fixture is now cancelled.

“EPCR acknowledges the unfortunate circumstances which have impacted on Scarlets’ players and staff through no fault of their own and would like to emphasise that awarding the match to Bristol Bears is a tournament management measure with the objective of ensuring that all fixtures in the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup are accounted for. EPCR has been in regular dialogue with Scarlets in recent days to offer guidance and support, and best wishes are extended to everyone at the club.”

Scarlets explained their drastic situation in their own statement. “The overwhelming feeling was that it would be a physical risk to select any of the 32 front-line squad members who are currently in quarantine in a hotel outside of Belfast. Since returning from South Africa, the travelling party have been in a strict ten-day quarantine, confined to their rooms with limited outdoor time a day without having been able to train as a group. 

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“That isolation period is due to end on Friday, December 10, just a day before the Bristol fixture. At present, we have 14 fit Scarlets players training at Parc y Scarlets – seven senior players and seven development players.  We would like to thank the Ospreys and Dragons for their offer of assistance, but, unfortunately, we have been unable to put together a match-day squad that can safely take the field against the Bears.”

Simon Muderack, Scarlets’ executive chairman, added: “It is a decision we haven’t taken lightly. This is a great fixture between two great clubs, which supporters, players and staff on both sides were all looking forward to. Ultimately, though, the welfare of our players has to be our priority and following discussions with our staff, it was felt that there was too much risk to ask the players currently in quarantine to play a game of this magnitude and intensity just a day after coming out of quarantine. 

“You have to remember, the squad have been in isolation since the news of this Omicron variant first emerged when they were still in Durban so it will be something like 15 days in all. Also, a lot of the players haven’t played since the Benetton game on October 22. As a club, we have a duty of care to our players.

“With only 14 squad members training at the Parc, half of them young development players, we did look into the possibility of registering players from other regions and we have been grateful for the positive response from Ospreys and Dragons. But any players we did loan would effectively be ‘cup-tied’ which has made that option a challenge as well.

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“With the integrity of the competition in mind, we felt we were unable to put together a match-day 23 that would safely be able to take the field against the Bears. We are all disappointed. I know a lot of fans had booked accommodation in Bristol and have been looking forward to this game for some time. But I am sure everyone will understand the situation we have found ourselves in through no fault of our own.

“I would also like to stress that we have returned no positive Covid-19 cases in all the rounds of PCR testing prior to leaving and since arriving in South Africa and Northern Ireland. We would like to thank everyone at Bristol Bears and EPCR for their understanding of our predicament and look forward to welcoming Pat Lam and his side to Parc y Scarlets for the return fixture in January.”

Ironically, it was this time last year when Scarlets benefitted from a Champions Cup cancellation, the Welsh club getting a 28-0 win awarded over Toulon after the French club refused to travel from the airport in Cardiff to play a game at Parc y Scarlets.

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