Gruff Rees says that Cardiff are in a “surreal situation” as they prepare to host European champions Toulouse without more than 30 players.
Cardiff have a party of 42 players and staff in isolation at a hotel just outside London until next week, but their challenge is built on a platform provided by a handful of Wales internationals such as Josh Adams, Tomos Williams, Ellis Jenkins, Dillon Lewis and Seb Davies.
They did not travel to South Africa, which became a UK Government red-listed country as fresh travel restrictions were imposed following the discovery of a new coronavirus variant.
Cardiff, the Scarlets, Munster and Zebre Parma had all been due to play United Rugby Championship fixtures in the country, before eventually securing charter flights home.
The Scarlets, who currently have 32 players in quarantine at a Belfast hotel, have forfeited Saturday’s scheduled Heineken Champions Cup game against Bristol.
Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) have confirmed a 28-0 scoreline in Bristol’s favour and an award of five match points to the Gallagher Premiership club.
Cardiff’s line-up against Toulouse, meanwhile, will also include a number of academy players and semi-professionals, with academy manager Rees heading up the coaching team.
“It is a surreal situation all round, really,” he said.
“It has been really tricky, and obviously our thoughts are with the players and staff who have had to endure such difficult times, and (we are) trying to give them as much support as possible.
“We can’t hide away from the fact that it could be a daunting task against the best in the business, but one that actually can bring the best out of everyone.
“The last couple of weeks we have had that core group of players who were left behind. Then we added players to that last week to make 16-18, with a couple of fringe guys.
“Now, this week, a full working week, we have gone out to 32 players. So this, for us, is a normal training week in terms of numbers.
“Obviously the demographic of the numbers is different, but we have had two really good intense sessions which I would akin to what professional rugby standards should be about.
“We have a slightly misfit group coming together. There is less pressure in some ways, but we’ve got that responsibility that whoever is on the field we are representing a great rugby club in a great competition.”
The Scarlets’ plea to EPCR to reconsider its position on rescheduling of fixtures fell on deaf ears. The club’s 10-day isolation period is due to end a day before the Bristol game.
A statement from the organisers read: “EPCR have been informed by Scarlets that due to player welfare concerns and the club’s inability to safely field a match-day squad, they are not in a position to fulfil their Heineken Champions Cup, round 1 fixture against Bristol Bears scheduled for Saturday, 11 December at Ashton Gate.
“The fixture in Pool B is therefore cancelled with Bristol Bears awarded the match on a 28-0, five match points basis, in accordance with the tournament rules.
Scarlets say they have 14 fit players training at Parc y Scarlets – seven senior players and seven development players – and, despite receiving offers to borrow players from the Ospreys and Dragons, they feel unable to put together a match-day squad that can safely take the field against the Bears.
“It is a decision we haven’t taken lightly,” Scarlets executive chairman Simon Muderack said.
“Ultimately, though, the welfare of our players has to be our priority and, following discussions with our staff, it was felt that there was too much risk to ask the players currently in quarantine to play a game of this magnitude and intensity just a day after coming out of quarantine.
“With only 14 squad members training at the Parc, half of them young development players, we did look into the possibility of registering players from other regions and we have been grateful for the positive response from Ospreys and Dragons.
“But, any players we did loan would effectively be ‘cup-tied’ which has made that option a challenge as well.”
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