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Covid-19 leaves professional French rugby in limbo

Like all sporting events, the Covid-19 lockdown in France has brought rugby at every level to a standstill

Professional rugby bosses in France have set an absolute final cut-off date of July 18 to complete the 2019/20 season which has been suspended since mid-March.

Like all sporting events, the Covid-19 lockdown has brought rugby at every level to a standstill. 

The FFR has cancelled all amateur competitions for the 2019/20 season. The two main professional leagues, the Top 14 and ProD2, have been suspended since March 13. A crucial meeting - originally scheduled for Tuesday, April 7 - has been delayed until later in the month, leaving questions over titles, promotion and relegation up in the air.

Meanwhile, players and staff have been furloughed as clubs cut costs at a time when millions of euros in income has collapsed to almost zero.

French media report there are two favoured scenarios as the Top 14 tries to recoup some of the €100million it could lose if the 2019/20 campaign is cancelled outright. It could maintain the current June 26 date for the final, with a hastily re-arranged and shortened run-in if the public health situation allows, or move the final to July 18.

The organisation's president, Paul Goze, told L'Equipe: "The Ministry of Sport will set the rules for restarting competitions. That's our compass.

"It is, moreover, out of the question to take the slightest risk with the health of the players, the staff and the fans. This is our absolute priority.

But, he added: "Stopping the Championship will be an extremely serious decision for professional rugby with very serious economic consequences. This is also why it seems to us that it is still too early to take such a decision."

Goze said July 18 - a date only possible if the French national side's tour of Argentina is scrapped - is the absolute final cut-off point for this season's professional competitions. If a hastily restructured last third of the two campaigns cannot be completed by that date, the Top 14 and ProD2 will be cancelled.

The virus outbreak in France could still derail those plans. As Robins Tchale-Watchou, president of players' union Provale, said: "We have an unknown that complicates the various equations, which is how the health situation will evolve. Depending on when it ends, we may not be able to continue."

Even if the leagues do resume, shifting the date of the finals into July poses its own problems. Player contracts run from July 1 to June 30, so any matches in July would mean some players are, officially, out of contract - and may have moved to other clubs.

Despite the massive financial implications of cutting short or ending the season after 17 weekends, Brive president Simon Gillham is confident that professional clubs will survive the current crisis. "Everybody's rallying round," he told The Rugby Paper at the weekend. "Nobody's going to let anyone go to the wall because of coronavirus."

He said: "Not to make any light comparisons, but if you look at the economic crisis of 2008, people rebuilt and survived. That's what will happen. It may take a year, it may take five years. But we'll get there because people are very responsible."

French rugby is fortunate to have a good relationship with TV rights holder Canal Plus. The pay-TV broadcaster is paying €97million a year to broadcast the Top 14, and has remained four-square behind the league, despite the lack of games for its money.

"Canal Plus loves rugby," Gillham, who sits on the management board of the broadcaster's parent company, Vivendi, said.. "Canal Plus thinks it gets value for money from rugby. And Canal Plus is a partner until at least 2023. The TV money is not going to go away."

How long any goodwill lasts remains to be seen. Canal recently held back a scheduled €110-million payment for broadcast rights to French football's Ligue 1.

"This is the perfect example of force majeure," a spokesman told AFP at the time. "There are no more matches, so there are no more payments. We are strictly applying the terms of the contract and we don't see why we would do it any other way. Canal Plus is not a bank."

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