Warren Gatland: Players could miss Lions tour if Premiership Rugby stands firm

By Duncan Bech, PA
·4-min read

Warren Gatland has urged Premiership Rugby to release players for the Lions’ warm-up Test against Japan after revealing their absence could cost some English contenders a place on the tour to South Africa.

Gatland has compared talks with PRL to Brexit negotiations as the Lions seek a relaxation of the league’s stance on blocking players from taking part in the build-up to the historic Test at Murrayfield on the grounds that it falls outside the international window.

The 2021 Gallagher Premiership final is also scheduled for June 26 despite attempts by the Lions to have it brought forward by a week, thereby bringing it in line with the Guinness PRO14 showpiece.

Even personnel not appearing in the climax to the domestic season at Twickenham are barred from joining up with Gatland’s squad, which will meet up for the first time in mid-June.

England players could be affected by Premiership Rugby's position says Warren Gatland
England players could be affected by Premiership Rugby’s position says Warren Gatland (Andrew Milligan/PA)

It not only affects those England players hoping to stake their claim for Lions selection, but also Premiership-based stars from other nations such as Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray at Exeter, Bath’s Toby Faletau and Callum Sheedy of Bristol.

Gatland has spelt out the possible repercussions if PRL refuses to be more accommodating.

“If England have a great Six Nations, you could argue that a third to half the squad could potentially be missing not just for that Japan week, but also for a camp in Wales we’re planning the week before,” Gatland said.

“That would be disruptive and given how limited the preparation time is, while we’ll be taking the best squad we possibly can, the reality of the situation is that I just hope it doesn’t impact on any players in selection.

“If you end up with a 50/50 call, then a player who is able to be there for a week’s camp in Wales and a week’s preparation for the Japan game might get the nod against someone who has unfortunately not been available until only one week before the first match in South Africa.”

A possible outcome of the discussions is that PRL agrees to release players from its 13 member clubs in return for a share of the £5million revenue expected to be generated by the Japan game.

However, Gatland’s optimism is clouded by his experience of working with the English league’s governing body.

“It’s a challenge at the moment and I just hope that some common sense will prevail in negotiations,” said the Kiwi, who will be taking charge of a Lions tour for the third time.

The Lions’ Test with Japan clashes with the Premiership final
The Lions’ Test with Japan clashes with the Premiership final (David Davies/PA)

“They (PRL) haven’t always been the easiest to deal with! They have their own ways of doing things. At the moment nothing is set in stone.

“It’s a little bit like Brexit, isn’t it? It’s a bit of a game in terms of whether we end up with a deal that is satisfactory for all. That’s what I’m hoping.

“I think we’d get full support from club coaches because the way I look at it, when a player goes away on a Lions tour and it’s successful, he can potentially come back as a superstar.

“You can then promote that at the start of the following season – ‘come along and see your Lions players at your local club’ – and generate more interest.

“It’s a little bit frustrating but I just hope we can come to some agreement where we do have access to the players.”

Gatland hopes that one particularly influential group will make their opinions known.

“Maybe the players’ association and players themselves might voice their opinion about what they think. Theirs is a pretty powerful voice to be heard,” he said.

“It’s about their opportunity to go on a Lions tour and have the best chance and preparation to go on tour.”

:: Warren Gatland was speaking on behalf of Canterbury at the launch of the British & Irish Lions Pro jersey available at Canterbury.com.