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European rugby matches cancelled over virus fall-out

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The final two rounds of group matches in rugby union’s European Champions and Challenge Cups will be cancelled, with both tournaments now moving straight into the knockout phase, the chief executive of England’s Premiership Rugby said Thursday.

This month’s concluding pool matches were postponed on Monday after the French government said the COVID-19 pandemic made it too risky for French teams to play at a time when a new variant was becoming increasingly widespread in Britain and Ireland.

COVID-19 hits European rugby

But Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs said European Professional Club Rugby, the organisers of the European events, had now decided to do away with the remaining group games given the difficulty of rescheduling fixtures in an already congested schedule.

EPCR is set to decide on what format their competitions should now take, with a round of 16 one widely touted option when it comes to a restart.

“The decision was made very quickly by the executive at EPCR that we would not try to reschedule those games,” Childs told a conference call.

The British and Irish Lions are meant to tour South Africa following the end of the European campaign and Childs added: “There’s no space at the end of the season because of the Lions and we have no spare weekends in our season once we resume.”

Childs added: “To play European rounds when the Lions is taking place would have been very damaging to the European tournaments.

“Everyone is managing their domestic and international calendars to the best of their ability. The exact structure has not been agreed and we’ve already started those discussions.”

Earlier this week, French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu said she needed further “guarantees” from other governments to allow France to face Ireland and England in the upcoming Six Nations.

France are set to open the tournament by hosting Italy on February 6 before heading to Dublin a week later and Twickenham on March 13.

Britain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the virus outbreak, with more than 83,000 people losing their lives after testing positive for COVID-19.

It is currently mired in its third, and worst, wave of the virus, registering record daily case numbers and death tolls blamed on a new strain of the disease.

“We keep the first match. On the other hand, against Ireland and England we absolutely need to have the necessary guarantees from these countries,” Maracineanu said.

© Agence France-Presse

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Peter de Villiers wades into British & Irish Lions tour debate

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Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has aired his views on the scheduled – at time of publishing – British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa in mid-2021.

FEEL GOOD | RONALD BROWN BEATS CANCER TO JOIN BLITZBOKS ON PLANE TO SPAIN

In a lengthy social media post, De Villiers feared that the tour would be moved to the UK for purely commercial reasons.

The eight-match tour, which includes three Tests, is due to start in early July.

However, due to Covid-19 concerns, frantic meetings are still ongoing as to whether to go ahead with the tour, hold it in the United Kingdom or postpone until 2022.

At this stage, it appears unlikely the tour will go ahead in South Africa this year while a postponement by 12 months has also faced opposition due to the already pencilled in plans for the four Home Unions in particular.

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That leaves the most likely scenario as holding a British & Irish Lions “tour” in the UK for the first time ever.

While, such a decision wouldn’t prove popular with everyone and the UK currently faces as problematic a Covid-19 situation as South Africa does, SA Rugby Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is on record as saying the organisation would “do anything” to play the British & Irish Lions.

It also doesn’t sit well with De Villiers who coached the Springboks during the British & Irish Lions’ last tour of the country in 2009.

Peter de Villiers, the new EP Elephants coach, is in favour of a postponement to 2022.

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‘Over the last few weeks, I have managed to find a small amount of time to reflect on the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 and the ongoing discussion on where and when the 2021 tour should take place.

‘The Lions tour will forever live with me as one of the greatest events I have ever experienced in rugby and it was not purely because of the results.

‘The Lions bring an aura that can’t be matched. Whilst on tour, they travel the country, they hold coaching clinics in communities, schools and townships, they fill stadiums and pump immeasurable amounts of money into a crippling economy that in 2021 or in 2022, we can ill-afford losing out on.

‘I know of a numerous amount of UK charities and tour operators who donate to South African charities and projects that will not be able to do so should this tour not go ahead here in South Africa. The chance to have a social impact in a country that is so desperate for it will be lost.

‘My biggest fear is that if they do move the tour to the UK, they will be doing it to appease sponsors and commercial obligations rather than rugby reasons and that would not sit well with me.’

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Feel good | Ronald Brown beats cancer, joins Blitzboks on plane to Spain

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Uncapped Ronald Brown, who recently recovered from serious illness, will join a raft of experienced Springbok Sevens players when they travel to Madrid next month for two tournaments to be hosted by the Spanish Rugby Union.

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South Africa’s two most experienced players, Branco du Preez and Chris Dry, will make the three-week trip to Europe along with an experienced group of HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stalwarts, with Brown the only player to take to the skies for the first time in the green and gold.

Ronald Brown, a recent product of the SA Rugby Sevens Academy set-up and a Varsity Cup star for the University of Johannesburg, graduated with an education degree in 2019.

RONALD BROWN WAS DIAGNISED WITH HODGKIN’S LYMPHOMA

It was the same year he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and following a number of chemotherapy sessions lasting several months, the sweeper has been cleared of the illness and is fit to resume his rugby career.

“Ronald Brown’s story is remarkable and it’s great to finally see him graduate to the Blitzboks set-up,” said Neil Powell, coach of the Springbok Sevens team.

“The resilience he’s shown in fighting his illness, as well as his discipline and work-ethic, are the kind of characteristics we look for in players and I’m excited to see what Ronald can bring to the team.”

Also included in the squad are JC Pretorius and Selvyn Davids, who were named in the World Series Dream Team for the shortened 2020 season, while Zain Davids and Muller du Plessis also returned from their stints at the Sharks, where they were part of the Durbanites’ Currie Cup and Super Rugby Unlocked squads.

Siviwe Soyizwapi will lead the team for the first time since December 2019. The winger was injured prior to last year’s tournaments in Hamilton and Sydney and then missed out altogether as the season was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The two tournaments will be played on consecutive weekends – from 19-21 and 26-28 February – at the Campo UCM Central, Madrid and will be the first arranged by World Rugby to prepare teams that qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in July.

The world body in December announced financial grants to all Olympic participants, which were to be used towards training camps, competition support, technical and sports science, medical programmes and high-performance preparation events.

This will be the first of these events and for Neil Powell, it comes at just the right time.

“We last played almost a year ago and we have been on the training field for almost six months now,” said Powell.

“All the players are very keen to get going and for us as coaches, the two tournaments will be an ideal opportunity to see where we are with regards to fitness, tactical awareness and squad depth.

“We have picked this squad for that purpose in mind, bearing in mind that some players, including Kurt-Lee Arendse, Stedman Gans and Angelo Davids, were still involved in the Currie Cup and will have a rest period once that is completed.

“The rest of the group will stay behind in Stellenbosch and continue with their preparations. They will be in the mix when the next set of tournaments come around, Covid-depending.”

The travelling squad will undergo Covid-19 testing prior to departure to Spain, in adherence to tournament regulations, and will again be tested upon arrival in Europe, where the tournaments will be played in a bio-bubble.

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Springbok Sevens squad:

Chris Dry, JC Pretorius, Zain Davids, Sako Makata, Christie Grobbelaar, Selvyn Davids, Branco du Preez, Justin Geduld, Ronald Brown, Muller du Plessis, Mfundo Ndhlovu, Siviwe Soyizwapi (captain)

James Murphy and Darren Adonis are the non-travelling reserves

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Springbok hard man Eben Etzebeth adds flank to his rugby CV

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Springbok 2019 Rugby World Cup winner Eben Etzebeth started the first game of his career at blindside flanker in Toulon’s 35-13 home victory over 14-man Stade Francais on Sunday.

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Argentina flyhalf Nicholas Sanchez was shown a red card on the stroke of half-time after making contact with the head of the hosts’ Baptiste Serin at a ruck.

The three-time European champions climbed up to third place as the visitors remain in eighth, five points away from the play-offs.

Eben Etzebeth was moved from lock by Toulon coach Patrice Collazo minutes before kick-off as Swann Rebbadj pulled out in the warm-up.

Away coach Gonzalo Quesada made 10 alterations from the loss at Toulouse earlier this month.

Collazo’s men led 15-6 just after the half-hour mark as ex-All Black Isaia Toeava and France flyhalf Louis Carbonel crossed.

An apologetic Sanchez was sent off in the final play of the half after his shoulder made contact with Serin’s head while attempting to make a clear-out at a breakdown.

Eben Etzebeth completed the full 80 minutes on his 20th appearance for Toulon.

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