The United Rugby Championship have issued a statement after the most turbulent week in the intercontinental competition’s short history.
Several of its teams, including Scarlets and Cardiff, experienced difficulties returning from South Africa after travel restrictions were imposed at short notice following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
The two Welsh regions, along with Munster and Zebre Parma, had been in the country preparing to play back-to-back matches in the United Rugby Championship.
But the placing of South Africa on the UK government’s red travel list meant the Welsh pair faced a struggle to make a swift return to Europe, with Munster also hitting similar problems.
Players and staff are now in isolation, with some from Cardiff and Munster remaining in South Africa after returning positive coronavirus tests.
Criticism has come in, not just aimed at the Welsh government by Cardiff, whose chief operating officer Rhys Blumberg accused them of an “appalling lack of empathy and support” with regards the club’s staff stuck in South Africa. “No special treatment requested, just support to get them back on Welsh soil so they can start their quarantine,” Blumberg tweeted.
There has also been flak directed at the URC, with some on social media questioning the wisdom of playing a competition across continents during a global health emergency. One player, the Cardiff full-back Matthew Morgan, clearly exasperated by Cardiff’s situation at the time and maybe the circumstances players themselves were enduring, stuck in hotel rooms thousands of miles from home amid the worrying uncertainty of a pandemic, took to Twitter to hit out at the league and the region’s treatment.
He called the URC a “shambles of a league” and said it was “shocking they dragged us out to South Africa in the first place and can’t even fly us home”. The Welsh government, suggested Morgan, was “getting more of a joke day by day”.
He finished with: “Get us the f**k out of here you clowns.”
The URC have now issued a response to the chaotic events, saying the league “remains committed to the format and ensuring all games are played”, while adding: “It must be made clear that the welfare of our teams and players must come first.”
Their full statement runs: “Since information was released regarding the new Covid-19 variant, the United Rugby Championship has sought to act swiftly in the best interests of player welfare which led to the immediate postponements of the Round 6 & 7 cross-hemisphere fixtures last week.
“The league can now confirm that travelling parties from Cardiff, Munster, Scarlets and Zebre Parma are now all back in Europe. Only a group from Cardiff and Munster, who had positive PCR test results, remain in South Africa and are under the continued great care of our colleagues from SA Rugby.
“In the past week the URC has worked with the relevant government departments of the travelling teams to repatriate players and staff. The focus now continues to be placed on supporting the players and staff in various locations who are quarantining.
“In this very challenging situation the league would like to acknowledge the heartfelt support from the many government departments, fellow URC teams and the wider rugby community, including SA Rugby, the South African players association (MyPlayers), the league’s shareholders and clubs, commercial partners and other people who reached out to offer assistance.
“After a successful beginning to the inaugural URC campaign, the league remains committed to the format and ensuring all games are played. Work has already begun on rescheduling the games postponed in R6 and R7 but it must be made clear that the welfare of our teams and players must come first.”
There are potential issues to follow, with the Scarlets facing huge obstacles to fulfil their Heineken Champions Cup fixture with Bristol Bears next weekend, the day after player emerge from quarantine, and Cardiff and Munster facing severe challenges of their own.
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