MUNSTER will join Cardiff, the Scarlets and Zebre Parma in returning home to Europe after the United Rugby Championship postponed the next two rounds of matches on South African soil, starting with this weekend’s games.
The emergence of a new variant of Covid-19 (B.1.1.529) in the Rainbow Nation and the British government and European Union's plans to place South Africa on their travel red-lists means the games will not go ahead.
And Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said on Friday evening that anyone returning to Ireland from seven southern African countries, including South Africa, will have to quarantine at home for 10 days regardless of vaccine, recovery or PCR test status.
When specifically asked about the Munster travelling party, Donnelly said that the measures will apply “regardless of status.”
The news is a major blow to the tournament which has yet to kick off in South Africa since the four big franchises joined last summer.
The URC hopes to reschedule the games for later in the season, with the Six Nations window potentially offering a solution.
They had planned to host these games in Italy, but the improving situation with the pandemic convinced organisers to play the games at the Lions, Bulls, Stormers and Sharks' home venues in front of reduced capacity crowds.
However, the rapidly changing situation has put paid to those plans and Munster are now preparing to leave Pretoria - even though some of their players only landed in this morning.
“The safety and well-being of our participating clubs' players, coaches, 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,” a URC statement advised.
“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.”
Munster now face going into their match against Wasps in the Champions Cup on the back of seven weeks without a game and after spending 10 days in quarantine.
Cardiff and the Scarlets have said they are struggling to fly their teams back despite securing a charter plane.
A Cardiff statement read: “Cardiff Rugby continue to work tirelessly to repatriate their travelling party from South Africa following sudden developments around the Covid-19 variant B.1.1.529.
“A charter aircraft has been secured, however we have been unable to secure Civil Aviation Authority clearance due to the closure of borders in the UK and European Union.”
A Scarlets statement added: “Together with our colleagues at Cardiff Rugby, we had hoped to fly out of South Africa on Friday.”