Rugby union's European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been suspended after the French government said the Covid-19 pandemic made it too risky for French teams to play, organisers said Monday.
The French government wrote to the French league (LNR), directing the country's rugby clubs not to play in the European competitions until "February at least" because of the pandemic.
A meeting will be held on Tuesday about the Six Nations tournament, which is scheduled to start on February 6, France's sports ministry said.
"On the basis of this directive, EPCR had no choice but to temporarily suspend the pool stage of the Heineken Champions Cup and the preliminary stage of the Challenge Cup," European Professional Club Rugby, the organisers of the European cup competitions, said in a statement.
- 'Priority' -
Britain is battling a new variant of Covid-19 that has led to a sharp rise in infections and hospitalisations.
"It is a priority of the (French) government to fight against all the risks of introduction" of more contagious variants of the virus and their "circulation in the country," said the letter.
The EPCR stressed it had tried to assure the LNR and the French ministries of the Interior, Health and Sport, as well as of the office of President Emmanuel Macron, that new protocols were in place for the clubs taking part.
"While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR... remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable," said the EPCR statement.
France's Top 14, the country' elite club competition, said matches previously postponed because of Covid-19 would be played over the next two weekends that had originally been scheduled for the European fixtures.
But the English Premiership, where there have been Covid-19 related cancellations this season, said clubs in the English top-flight would use the coming fortnight's suspension of European games to take a break.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs said this would "hand some much-needed rest to our hard-working players, management, staff and match officials", adding the league season will return as scheduled with a match between southwest rivals Bristol and Bath on January 29.
France are due to begin the 2021 Six Nations with away matches against Italy and Ireland before facing Scotland in Paris on February 28 and then travelling to London for a Twickenham fixture with reigning champions England on March 13.
Earlier on Monday, EPCR chief executive Vincent Gaillard told the BBC that he was confident the tournaments could be completed in April and May.
He said that organisers already had four weekends scheduled in April and May to play the knockout stages.
The decision came exactly one year after China, the original source of Covid-19, confirmed its first death from the virus.
Almost two million people around the world have died since including more than 81,000 in Britain which saw the emergence of the new, reportedly more transmissible B117 strain, late last year.