Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s confirmation that crowding restrictions at indoor and outdoor sporting events have been lifted from Saturday morning will be timely relief for the IRFU and various stakeholders in Irish rugby.
The first of Ireland’s three Six Nations matches at Aviva Stadium is in a fortnight, and a capacity crowd of over 50,000 will see a receipt of around €5 million alone.
The union had already issued match tickets to the clubs, counties and regular outlets, and with an estimated 8,000 Welsh fans going on the journey, there will also be a huge boon to the hospitality industry over those three weekends.
More immediately, Munster will now increase attendances at Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup game against Wasps at Thomond Park (kick-off at 3.15pm) from 5,000 to 16,000.
“Capacity will be limited to this figure due to the short turnaround time and limited operations for Sunday’s game,” the province said in a statement.
Season ticket holders and Munster Rugby Supporters Club members will be given priority, while a limited number of general tickets will also be available online from 1pm on Saturday via ticketmaster.ie.
That’s the good news.
The odds were always against the final two rounds in the group stage being completed without a hitch, or more to the point without further cancellations and controversy. And so a final round that already missed the drama of the previous pool set-up of six teams has potentially inflicted significant damage on the Heineken Champions Cup after threats of legal action by defending champions Toulouse and the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR).
This follows the cancellation of Toulouse’s last home game against Cardiff, with the latter taking a 28-0 bonus points win, a decision that has dealt another blow to the Hornet.
Echoing Leinster’s anger at the decision to award Montpellier a walk-over in round two, match organizers European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) awarded Cardiff a walk-over following their independent Match Risk Assessment Committee, made up of doctors from their The medical advisory group also considered, as an independent medical specialist, the risk of further infection too great and “unfortunately” canceled the competition. This followed a “significant” number of positive Covid results – believed to be 20 – in Toulouse’s squad.
Rene Bouscatel, president of the LNR and former president of Toulouse, vowed: “I have decided to convene an LNR board of directors as a matter of urgency to discuss the follow-up, including legal action, to be taken on this matter. . decision.”
This raises the specter of the LNR, major shareholders and board members of the EPCR, taking action against the EPCR, which could cause irreparable damage to the organization.
Also in Pool B, Leicester got a 28-0 bonus points win over Bordeaux-Begles after the French club was unable to fulfill the game following an outbreak of Covid in their ranks.
The two cancellations further watered down the Pool B final, although it did ensure that Connacht qualified for the knockout stage for the first time ever; a remarkable achievement by Andy Friend and his team.
Despite missing half a dozen props and also without the in-form Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki, Friend has vowed that Connacht will fully focus on winning the Stade Francais in Paris on Sunday (kick-off 1pm Irish time).
Anyway, it looks like Connacht will finish fifth in Pool B, and assuming Leinster finishes fourth in Pool A, then the two Irish teams would meet in the two-legged Round of 16 over the second and third weekends of April. That would be quite a lot.
Leinster would have plans to overtake one or more of the three sides above them in Pool A, and that would likely require a bonus point win against Bath in the Rec on Saturday (1pm kick-off).
Johnny Sexton starts, with Luke McGrath and Robbie Henshaw also recovering, while Michael Ala’alatoa replaces the injured Tadhg Furlong, although Leo Cullen was optimistic about Furlong and James Ryan’s prospects against Wales.
Ulster is the best placed of the Irish quartet. A win over Clermont at home on Saturday (kick-off 5.30) would secure a top two place, and a guaranteed home quarter-final if they reach the last eight.
In what could be a high-scoring game tonight – JJ Hanrahan starts with Damian Penaud curiously left on the bench – will see a first return to Belfast for former head coach Jono Gibbes, who has reportedly secured Ulster defense coach Jared Payne from next season.