PARIS (AP) — Momentum was building nicely as France eyed a third straight Six Nations win with a view to achieving its first Grand Slam since 2010.
Off to another great start after finishing a narrow runner-up last year, France had high hopes and wasn’t afraid to say so. After so many rugby campaigns in the past decade fizzled out quickly, these Tricolores were exciting and drawing deserved plaudits. The players were awash in élan and invention, galvanized by refreshingly inventive new coaches.
A seven-try feast in Rome was followed by a first win in Dublin in 10 years, and Scotland was coming to Paris this weekend to try and withstand the force of Fabien Galthie’s rejuvenated side.
Until the coronavirus broke into France’s bubble.
On the first rest weekend, three players tested positive, including 2020 player of the tournament Antoine Dupont. The next day, two more. The day after that, last Monday, there were five more, including captain Charles Ollivon. Three staff were also positive, including Galthie.
Negative tests for two straight days prompted a green light for the Scotland game, but on Thursday an 11th player tested positive, and the game was postponed. It won’t be next week, because the entire France squad is in isolation and won’t have enough time to train.
Dejected players were driven home on Friday morning in separate cars from their camp in Marcoussis, on the outskirts of Paris, as investigations were launched into the outbreak by the French Rugby Federation and the government.
The initial accusations are focused on one of the first infected, Galthie, whose leadership mantra has been all about unity, a stable environment, and setting an example.
Moments after the 15-13 victory over Ireland two weeks ago, Galthie made warm and fuzzy comments on television about how he hoped the team’s performance could bring happiness to children during a miserable time of lockdowns and curfews.
But the newspaper L’Equipe says he breached health protocols that were tightened so the tournament itself could go ahead. L’Equipe says Galthie broke the rules before the Ireland game, and some players went out eating in Rome before routing Italy 50-10.
Galthie told L’Equipe, “All of my actions have conformed to the health protocol. I don’t understand these unjustified accusations.”
But L’Equipe again blamed Galthie on Friday, splashing a picture of him wearing a face mask on the front page and the sarcastic words “Bas Les Masques” (Drop The Act).
FFR vice-president Serge Simon’s claim in another newspaper that the origin of the outbreak lay with one of the physios prompted anger, since that person is not thought to have breached any protocol.
France Sports Minister Roxane Maracineanu has ordered an internal investigation. The Six Nations was in jeopardy until her government gave its go-ahead to the tournament three weeks ago only after approving the FFR’s stricter sanitary controls.
Back then, France was frantically closing borders to non-essential travel and especially wary of a United Kingdom hit by a more infectious variant of the virus.
The FFR promised an impenetrable bubble. President Bernard Laporte tweeted on Jan. 14: “The protocol which worked well during the Autumn Nations Cup will be further reinforced. A strict health bubble with twice as many tests. Prevent, detect and contain. We will be exemplary.”
Now he’s under fire, too.
A worried-sounding Laporte said on French radio, “We want to know how we arrived at this point, because it’s true that the protocol is very strict. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a mistake made within the team. I hope not, and the first person to lead the inquiry and to find out the truth is me. But I find it hard to imagine.”
The matter has reached as high as Prime Minister Jean Castex.
“Before talking about punishments, we need to know exactly what happened,” Castex said on Thursday. “I think the players are already punished by not being able to play. We’re not prejudging the outcome of this affair. We have to start by analysing and understanding the situation.”
The blame game, however, has already kicked off.
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