French rugby agrees to end Top 14 season

PARIS (AFP) – French rugby authorities and club presidents agreed on Thursday to cancel the domestic season due to the coronavirus pandemic and concentrate on ensuring the 2020-2021 campaign starts in September.

France’s National Rugby League (LNR) said after discussions with chiefs from the top-flight Top 14 and Pro D2 clubs it had abandoned plans to hold play-offs at the end of August.

The news came on the same day that league football in France was also called off.

“We propose to declare that this 2019-2020 season is at an end and focus on organising the launch of the 2020-2021 editions of the two championships from September 2020,” the LNR said in a statement.

The season was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has killed over 24,000 people in France.

The decision to end it still needs to be rubber-stamped by the LNR’s executive board on a date that will be announced in the coming days.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced earlier this week professional sport could not take place until September in the country.

It now looks likely the season will end without a champion being declared and without relegation or promotion.

Bordeaux-Begles were eight points clear in the Top 14 with nine regular-season games left to play.

“We would have liked to fight for our chances of winning the title until the end,” club president Laurent Marti told AFP.

“A title won’t be won but the reasons behind it are much more serious than a name on the Bouclier de Brennus (the trophy awarded to the champions),” he added.

Deciding who takes part in European competitions looks set to be complicated and will be down to the LNR’s executive board.

Defending French champions Toulouse, who sit seventh in the table, suggested allowing eight teams rather than six to qualify for the European Champions Cup.

But the tournament organiser (EPCR), according to several sources, does not want to change the format of its flagship competition.

Another option could be for the teams placed fifth to eighth – La Rochelle, Clermont, Toulouse and Montpellier – to compete in play-offs.

Lyon President Yann Roubert said on Thursday it was a “huge shame” the season would be cancelled.

“It is a terrible blow not to see our immense work and investment justly rewarded at the end of the season with a third semi-final in a row,” said Roubert, whose team were second in the table.

Well-financed Paris-based club Stade Francais, who have the league’s biggest financial budget, were bottom and general manager Thomas Lombard fears financial difficulties without matches.

“We have had no money coming in since March. There are some government measures but we have lots to pay out, first and foremost in wages,” he said.

The league hopes to start its new season, which already promises to be a busy one, on September 5.

“Between France matches, the final stages of the European Cup, the summer tours that would not take place … it will make a lot of matches to cram (into a short space of time),” Montpellier coach Xavier Garbajosa told AFP.

Clubs must present plans to the sports ministry about what health precautions they will take for players, including how to help them regain match fitness.