Premiership Rugby is carrying out an urgent review of Sunday’s final round of fixtures after Sale Sharks returned 16 positive coronavirus tests among its playing squad, with further positive tests emerging at other clubs across the league.
The final round of the regular English rugby season has been plunged into chaos, with four clubs still vying for the final three places in the play-offs as Wasps, Bath, Sale and Bristol Bears vye to join Exeter Chiefs.
But after the Premiership announced that all team news would be delayed until Saturday afternoon, it emerged that Sale had been rocked by the news that 16 members of its first-team squad had tested positive for Covid-19, meaning they are required to self-isolate and cannot take part in Sunday’s final match against Worcester Warriors.
The matter became even more controversial when Sale issued a statement on Friday night to say they will continue to prepare for the encounter as they are confident that all health protocols can be maintained despite the positive tests, although Worcester soon responded to urge caution over the matter given the risk posed to their own squad and staff.
Premiership Rugby chose not to respond on Friday night as confusion reigned over the final weekend of the domestic season, but a statement issued just an hour before the teams were due to be announced for the weekend confirmed that the entire six-match programme was under review.
“Premiership Rugby can confirm that it is carrying out an ugent review ahead of Sunday’s final round of Gallagher Premiership Rugby matches.
“Sale Sharks announced last night that they had suffered ‘a number of positive Covid-19 tests’ this week, and we are aware there are also positive tests at other clubs.”
Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs added: “The health and well-being of our players and staff is our priority.
“More than 900 PCR Covid-19 screening tests were carried out on Thursday. On Friday, we received the results, which was followed by a comprehensive Contact Tracing programme at our clubs, created by those positive tests.
“These results are being analysed with the help of Public Health England and the local health authorities involved. This will allow a decision to be made over the Sale Sharks vs Worcester Warriors match, and any others that have been affected by positive results.
“We understand the stakes are very high this weekend but we have a responsibility to everyone involved with Premiership Rugby to ensure a methodical process is followed, and this cannot be rushed.”
Addressing Sale’s statement that the match will be able to go ahead as planned, Worcester's statement read: "Warriors' final Gallagher Premiership match of the season against Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell on Sunday is still the subject of discussions between Premiership Rugby and public health officials.
"A significant number of Sale players and staff tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday and have been retested as part of a rigorous process that applies to all clubs and which has been in place since before the 2019-20 season resumed in August.
"The sole criterion for deciding whether a match can take place in the current unprecedented and worrying circumstances is the safety of officials and players and staff of both clubs and (minimising) the risk of anyone contracting and spreading this killer disease.
"Warriors would always prefer the outcome of a match to be decided on the pitch and will do so provided we are satisfied that all the Covid-19 protocols and procedures have been followed and no health risk is posed to our players and staff.
"At the moment we are still awaiting confirmation that those protocols and procedures can be met to allow Sunday's match to proceed as scheduled."
Sale said they will name their starting XV at lunchtime on Saturday, while the fallout could affect Northampton's trip to Gloucester, with Saints having played Sale at Franklin's Gardens on Tuesday evening and already contending with an injury crisis at loosehead prop.
The unavailability of 16 Sale players decimates the Premiership's smallest squad of just 32 senior professionals and hinders their ability to field a matchday 23 without summoning reinforcements from their academy or making emergency signings.
In addition, Manu Tuilagi, Cobus Wiese and Lood De Jager have been struck down by long-term injuries and are unavailable for a game Sale must win if they are to secure a semi-final place.
Sale's statement said: "Although Sale Sharks have been subject to a number of positive Covid-19 tests this week, after a thorough consultation, the club, its healthcare professionals and rugby management are confident the fixture can be fulfilled safely in accordance with all Covid-19 guidelines.
"As directed by Premiership Rugby earlier today, the Sharks matchday 23 to face Worcester Warriors will be announced at 12pm on Saturday, October 3.
"Sale Sharks will make no further comment at this time."
If a club is unable to field a competitive team because of coronavirus, they automatically forfeit the game and a 20-0 defeat is awarded against them.
In that scenario, Sale would almost certainly endure an agonising end to an otherwise fine season by being replaced in the top four by Bristol, who are expected to sweep aside London Irish.
Most tests were carried out on Thursday, with clubs informed of the results on Friday morning. PRL does not release results until 48 hours after the tests were taken, meaning official confirmation will not be given before Saturday.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies