THE Munster rugby squad are set to depart South Africa as soon as possible after their two upcoming United Rugby Championship games were postponed due to a new Covid-19 variant.
A statement on the Munster website explained: "Due to the sudden developments connected with the new Covid-19 variant (B.1.1.529) that have immediately placed South Africa on the UK and EU travel red lists, the scheduled round six and seven United Rugby Championship fixtures set to take place in South Africa over the next two weekends have been postponed and will be rescheduled later this season.
"URC noted the safety and well-being of our participating clubs’ players, coaches and support staff and match officials is the foremost priority, and the URC is currently working with the four visiting clubs – Cardiff Rugby, Munster Rugby, Scarlets and Zebre Parma – to facilitate their return as soon as possible.
"This decision is based upon the latest guidance against non-essential travel to and from South Africa, the ban on direct flights to the UK and other home destinations and the potential hotel quarantines enforced upon those returning from South Africa.
"As has been the operating practice throughout the pandemic, the URC will continue engaging with our Medical Advisory Group, our union shareholders and respective governments to plan according to the latest health guidelines.
"A period of assessment will now be required to better understand the impact of these new travel restrictions and how to reschedule these games within the current season. Given the nature and speed of these developments, URC will provide further updates at the appropriate time through official channels only.
"Following on from the latest update from URC Munster Rugby are in the process of getting the touring party back to Ireland as soon as possible.
"Overall, the training week in Pretoria went well and the squad returned negative PCR test results in this week’s routine testing that had taken place ahead of round six.
"Scrum-half Craig Casey arrived in Pretoria earlier this morning before any announcement, and will now join the squad as they look to make their way back to Ireland as soon as possible.
📰 URC confirm the postponement of our fixtures against the Vodacom Bulls & the Emirates Lions.— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) November 26, 2021
We are in the process of getting the touring party back to Ireland.
The squad returned negative PCR test results in the latest routine testing.#MunsterInSA🇿🇦 #SUAF 🔴
On Thursday evening, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Disease reported a total of 2,465 new Covid-19 cases in South Africa, with 1,950 of those cases recorded in Gauteng in the past 24 hours. On Wednesday, there were 1,018 cases.
Gauteng has consistently been the worst-hit province for new infections over the past two weeks, which follows the confirmation that a new Covid-19 variant known as B.1.1.529 had been identified in SA.
More than 100 positive cases of the variant have already been detected so far in South Africa and has seen the country promptly placed back on the EU and UK’s travel red lists.
On Friday morning, Munster released a short statement to say: "We all are safe and well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 and will provide an update once we know more."
Cardiff and Scarlets had already confirmed they are planning to leave South Africa on the eve of the next round of the URC, and it’s understood that a statement will soon be released to provide further detail on the latest disruption to the competition.
Besides Munster’s clash against the Bulls on Saturday, Zebre were set to play the Stormers, Scarlets had been scheduled to face the Sharks, while Cardiff were poised to tackle the Lions on Sunday.
“With the situation in South Africa having changed so quickly, we are now looking to repatriate our staff ASAP,” Cardiff confirmed in a statement.
It’s believed that the Welsh sides were looking to arrange a charter flight from South Africa on Friday as they scrambled to get home before mandatory hotel quarantine regulations come into effect from Sunday for those travelling from such a newly red-listed country.
“Following the news of a new Covid-19 variant in South Africa, Scarlets would like to assure families and friends that we are making every effort to get our touring party back home to the UK as soon as possible,” Scarlets stated. “We will provide further updates as soon as we can.”
Earlier this week, Munster coach Johann van Graan said the team was remaining vigilant and mindful of the Covid-19 situation, but no one could have predicted how quickly the landscape would change.
“We know this virus doesn’t ask questions, so we test every morning, and try our best to remain healthy,” Van Graan commented on Tuesday.
However, since the announcement of the 'Nu' Variant, the seven-day average is up 189% with a daily test positivity of 6.5%. The latest figures show that 2,172 people are currently in hospital, with 114 more deaths. Only 28.4% of the population are reported to be vaccinated.
Specifically in Gauteng, as of Thursday night, the 1,950 new cases represented the biggest single-day increase since 13 August, with 707 patients in hospital and 55 in ICU.
Ironically, the two rounds of matches in South Africa were originally due to be played in Italy due to Covid issues, but they were then switched back once the country was taken off the UK's red travel list in October.
In golf, four Irish golfers are among 16 players to have withdrawn from the Joburg Open, the opening event of the DP World Tour (rebranded from the European Tour). Jonathan Caldwell, Niall Kearney, Paul Dunne, and Cormac Sharvin are seeking to leave the country amid the new outbreak.