The Premiership’s grandstand finish to the season has been plunged into chaos after 16 Sale players tested positive for Covid‑19, dealing their play-off hopes a hammer blow if they have to forfeit their crucial match against Worcester on Sunday.
Complicating matters, however, it is understood that the Sharks may argue they are not at fault and were given incorrect test results last week which could have led to the outbreak.
After testing was carried out on Thursday, Sale were informed of the positive cases and all relevant personnel, as well as their close contacts, have been told to self-isolate.
If the Sharks are unable to field a team on Sunday, according to Premiership regulations, Worcester would be awarded a 20-0 win, which would boost the Warriors’ hopes of Champions Cup qualification.
The Guardian understands, however, that Sale may make the case that they were initially told they had no cases last week but were subsequently informed they did, in fact, have positive tests.
In the intervening period it is believed the squad took part in contact training.
Premiership Rugby and Randox, the company which carries out the league’s testing, declined to comment on the specific case on Friday night but earlier in the day league officials took the decision to postpone all team announcements by 24 hours until Saturday “following the recent set of midweek matches”.
Premiership Rugby will reveal the latest testing results on Saturday, having announced five positives, from three clubs, including four players and one official out of 1,056 players and club staff last week.
If Sale have to forfeit Sunday’s match it would scupper their play‑off hopes and guarantee Wasps and Bath semi‑final spots. Bristol would only need a point at London Irish to leapfrog Sale in fourth and take the final play‑off spot.
Unlike France’s Top 14, there is no Premiership rule which dictates a match must be cancelled if a club have a certain number of cases, but with 34 players Sale have one of the smallest squads in the league.
It is understood the Sale director of rugby, Steve Diamond, was locked in talks with the authorities on Friday while the club reviewed their footage of training sessions to determine which players qualify as “close contacts” with those to have tested positive.
Having managed to complete eight of the outstanding nine rounds of matches since the restart, Premiership Rugby will be desperately hoping to avoid the impending chaos and were scrambling on Friday to find a solution. The weekend’s fixtures are set up for a thrilling finish with only two points separating Wasps in second place and Bristol in fifth but the outbreak at Sale is likely to ruin the grand finale.
Bath face a difficult trip to Saracens, who will be looking to sign off on a high before their relegation and the Bath director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, said of rumours surrounding Sale: “I know there is speculation. It has been something that every club has been working with this season and hopefully it is not the case.
“They are pretty giant ifs, buts and maybes. So let’s see what happens. We have competed hard all the way through and have to keep on doing that.”
The Sale outbreak comes just days after the Exeter director of rugby, Rob Baxter, called for an end to the Premiership’s coronavirus testing system.
Each round of testing costs an estimated £100,000 or around £8,000 per club per week and Baxter argued getting rid of the process would be an instant moneysaver for the cash‑strapped clubs.
“When you look at how few cases are being picked up I don’t think we are far off [having] genuine medical reasons to not continue with the testing,” Baxter said.
“I think most clubs would be in agreement that the actual transfer rates even around players who are testing positive are so, so small. I think the argument for continued testing will die away pretty quickly. It would save a fortune and free up a block of testing for other people.”