The pandemic is wreaking havoc with Premiership’s grandstand finish after Sale’s final-round match against Worcester at the AJ Bell Stadium was postponed until Wednesday with the Warriors citing health and safety concerns caused by the Sharks recording 16 positive Covid-19 tests.
However, the match will only go ahead if Public Health England is satisfied after another round of tests at the Manchester club on Tuesday and an investigation into the source of the outbreak finds Sale did not breach protocols.
Meanwhile, Northampton’s match at Gloucester has been cancelled after a number of the Saints’ squad was forced to isolate having come into contact with infected Sale players during Tuesday’s match at Franklin’s Gardens.
That left Saints with only two front rowers and a ban on making loan signings. Even though Premiership Rugby said Northampton were not at fault, Gloucester have been awarded five points so both clubs have qualified for next season’s European Champions Cup.
Premiership Rugby’s policy before the season’s restart in August was that if a match were called off because of a coronavirus outbreak or local lockdown restrictions, it would be cancelled rather than postponed given time constraints. It went against its own policy for Sale because the Sharks are among four clubs chasing three play-off places and “we wanted to do everything we could to play it because the match has a critical bearing on deciding the champions.”
The organisation took more than a day to reach its decision after learning of the coronavirus outbreak at Sale. The Sharks wanted the match to go ahead on Sunday as scheduled, saying it was in a position to fulfil the fixture and had “stringently followed” protocols throughout the pandemic. Worcester, who if the game had been cancelled stood to be awarded five points, had health and safety concerns.
“There are still a number of health and safety hurdles to be overcome before the match can be staged on Wednesday evening,” said Darren Childs, the Premiership Rugby chief executive. “An additional round of testing will be completed at Sale on Tuesday. It is essential that tests are clear for any player taking part in the game and that PHE is satisfied with the results.
“Sale and Worcester will not register any new players before the game and an independent audit of the track and trace processes at Sale will be undertaken over the next few days before the game is played.” It means an investigation into how the players became infected and if it is found protocols were not observed, the Sharks would face forfeiting the game.
The Sale players who tested positive will not be able to play on Wednesday because they must isolate themselves for at least 10 days. Premiership Rugby officials on Saturday went through the tape of Tuesday night’s match between Northampton and Sale to see how many Saints’ players came into direct contact with opponents who were infected with the virus and needed to isolate.
“We are extremely disappointed our season has ended in this way,” said Northampton in a statement. “An outbreak of coronavirus at another club has left us with no other viable option than to forfeit the game. We asked for permission to to register loan players beyond the normal deadline in order to fulfil the fixture, but we were advised dispensation would not be granted.”
If Wednesday’s match does go ahead, Sale would have the advantage of knowing what they have to do to secure a play-off place. The two clubs immediately above them. Wasps and Bath, face the leaders Exeter and the champions Saracens respectively, while the other contenders, Bristol, are at London Irish.
The dates for the play-offs have yet to be announced. If they are both on Saturday and the Sharks are involved, they would have a short turnaround but if one was on the Sunday and saw Sale going to Exeter, the Chiefs would have only six days to prepare for their Champions Cup final against Racing 92.