England’s British & Irish Lions are poised to be available for all three autumn internationals in November despite an agreement which stipulates they will have a week off on welfare grounds, the Guardian understands.
England play Tonga, Australia and South Africa this autumn and – according to a 2018 agreement between the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Players’ Association and Premiership Rugby – Lions players are due to sit out one of the fixtures. Enforced rests have proved unpopular with players in the past because they must forgo the lucrative £25,000 match fee, however, and it is understood selection will now be based on each individual’s circumstances.
The 13 England players who toured South Africa over the summer are undertaking a 10-week rest period until mid-October as part of the same agreement. Several are poised to return ahead of schedule, however, and some potentially as early as this weekend.
Northampton confirmed on Tuesday that Courtney Lawes, who played only five matches for the Saints last season, is available for selection while Kyle Sinckler has requested clearance to return early for Bristol. Harlequins have also revealed that Marcus Smith is due back ahead of schedule, having not featured in any of the three Tests against the Springboks, while it has been reported that Saracens’ Jamie George and Exeter’s Jonny Hill are eager to return on similar grounds. Bath have also revealed they are in discussions over Anthony Watson’s early return.
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The RFU has said applications can be made to return earlier with supporting evidence from the player, the club and Eddie Jones and each will be considered on an individual basis. But with several Lions expected to forgo their 10-week rest periods and avoid a mandatory week off in the autumn, the 2018 agreement, on the face of it, appears redundant.
England held a three-day training camp in Teddington, which finished on Tuesday. Jones selected a 45-man squad including 10 of the 13 Lions last week and even the fact they were available to attend came as a surprise given the high injury rate at England camps over the summer.
The season for Lions players officially finished on 7 August – when South Africa wrapped up the series with victory in the third Test – but given travel restrictions they were not allowed to return home for a further 10 days with some seeing out the quarantine period in Jersey. That quarantine period counted towards their 10-week layoff but, in effect, England’s Lions players were on the go for more than 12 months, raising further questions as to why the 10-week standout period and autumn rest week are not being strictly enforced.
“The Lions players have requested themselves,” the Bristol director of rugby, Pat Lam, said. “They want to get back playing, across the board. It’s all driven by each player – each player makes that decision themselves. What we will never do is tell a player he has got to come back and play. It’s up to that player. Kyle is one of them who has requested he wants to play, and then it goes to the RFU and then ourselves.”
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