Travel red tape risks making ‘mockery’ of Champions Cup, warns Sanderson

Attempts to press ahead with the forthcoming European fixtures have been dealt a fresh blow after it emerged South African players based in the UK face further red tape to gain entry into France with the Sale director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, saying the Champions Cup could be made into a “mockery”.

European Professional Club Rugby, the organiser of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, remains in discussions over two rounds of fixtures this month after matches were postponed in December when France limited entry from the UK to “essential only”. EPCR is hopeful of gaining the necessary exemptions to allow fixtures to go ahead.

On Tuesday, Sanderson revealed a further complication, however, with Sale’s South African players facing additional visa requirements. It is understood EPCR is aware of the problem, though its priority remains getting the fixtures played in the first place.

Sanderson, though, is adamant Sale would not be able to field a competitive side away to Clermont on 16 January if his South African contingent cannot travel and said they were not the only club to raise the issue. In addition, the French government has mandated that all sportspeople be fully vaccinated from 15 January, which would further reduce the number of players available to Sanderson.

“There’s a certain type of visa you get if you’re South African, which has to be approved,” he said. “They’d have to fast-track and approve these Schengen visas in record time. Apparently it’s only a stamp but it’s out of our hands.

“This is entirely in the lap of European Rugby and their ability to push it through and then the French government to approve it. It doesn’t give us a competitive team. There are nine of our squad who wouldn’t be approved and that’s not even including some of the lads who aren’t double-jabbed, of which there’s one or two. We’re not the only ones, we’re all in a similar boat.”

Asked about fielding a second‑string side if his South African players are not granted exemption, Sanderson said: “It’s a mockery of the cup then, isn’t it? We’re in it to play the best teams with our best team. So no, I wouldn’t even consider taking a second team to Clermont to get beaten up.”

Even if EPCR receives the green light for this month’s fixtures, when to replay those postponed last month has not been resolved. “I do think [the tournament] is in trouble, not through its own fault,” Sanderson said.

“We have all had to deal internally with Covid and all the issues and curveballs that come up because of it. There is no space in the season to reschedule these games. There is none so how do you continue with the tournament in its old structure? I can’t see how you can if we can’t field our best team to come to France or the game isn’t played.”