Former England captain Chris Robshaw was among a group of Barbarians players who breached strict Covid-19 guidelines by going on a night out leaving the famous club’s match against England on Sunday in danger of being called off.
Telegraph Sport understands that Robshaw and a group of Saracens players, including veterans Richard Wigglesworth, Jackson Wray and Sean Maitland, left the team hotel in Mayfair on Wednesday night without the permission of team officials to go for a meal at an Italian restaurant. Upon their return they were immediately isolated on a different floor of the hotel and sent home this morning in disgrace.
“The whole thing has made us very disappointed,” Barbarians president John Spencer told The Daily Telegraph. “It is obviously a breach of trust that the Barbarians is not used to. We are mortified” The Barbarians were on Thursday evening scrambling to recruit replacement players from other international teams maintaining secure Covid bubbles. Spencer said that he was “very optimistic” that the game will go ahead, which would represent England’s first competitive match since March.
It will still need the approval of the Rugby Football Union who do not want to jeopardise next week’s Six Nations title decider against Italy. They will make a final decision at 3pm on Friday. An RFU statement said: “If sufficient new players with an appropriate testing history and who have been meeting the code of conduct standards can be to be brought into the Barbarians camp then the game will go ahead. The RFU scheduled the Quilter Cup Barbarians fixture for performance purposes in order to provide a warmup game ahead of the postponed Italy v England Guinness Six Nations decider, however it will not compromise the safety of players to do so.”
In theory, the Barbarians could borrow nine players from England who are not included in Eddie Jones’ matchday squad. The Barbarians had already called up Simon Kerrod and Tom De Glanville who were previously in Jones’ training squads. That would leave head coach Vern Cotter needing to just find three players.
However while a host of players have volunteered their services on social media, the RFU will only allow players who are currently in Covid bubbles which includes Wales, Scotland and Georgia. Premiership Rugby has indicated that it would block an attempt to call-up any more of its players.
Coming so soon after the Covid outbreaks at Sale Sharks and Wasps initially plunged the finale to the Premiership season into doubt, it is astonishing that such an incident could have happened. While the Barbarians have a well-earned reputation for playing hard on and off the pitch, the players signed contracts in line with other elite athletes adhering to strict guidelines. “They all received notice of provisions which they have to adhere to,” Spencer said. “They then signed a copy of that to say they read it and understood it.” Initially the players were restricted to the team rooms in the hotel but later this week they were allowed to walk into Hyde Park and for socially distanced coffees. The club had organised drinks and even an internal Olympics inside the hotel to keep the players occupied.
The Daily Telegraph understands that heavy drinking was not involved however a visit to a restaurant breached the team’s regulations. It will be particularly galling for Robshaw for whom this was supposed to represent his final match at Twickenham before he joins San Diego Legion in the United States after a 15-year career with Harlequins. Just this week, Jones paid tribute to the way Robshaw rebounded from the heartache of captaining England during their group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup.
“He’s an outstanding guy,” Jones said. “There was a difficult time in English rugby. Being knocked out of the World Cup pool without making the play-offs in your home World Cup, that’s a difficult time, and he was one of the guys who helped uplift England back to where it should be in world rugby.”
Not only would it have represented Robshaw’s curtain call, but it is the final England match being broadcast by Sky Sports and the last game of Quilter’s sponsorship. Both carry significant financial ramifications in terms of compensation should the match not go ahead for which the Barbarians could be potentially liable.
It will also act as an important tune-up for the England going into the Italy match and the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup. It is no exaggeration to say the future of the Barbarians, a glorious anachronism in the 21st century, could be at stake.
“More important than the Barbarians’ reputation is the safety of players concerned,” Spencer said. “We are very concerned for the safety of not just remaining players in our bubble but obviously concerned for the safety of the England team. That’s the cause of our disappointment. The Barbarians reputation will outlive something like this, but as I said we are mortified.”