England, Wales and Scotland players based in the Premiership have been warned they could miss out on Lions selection due to doubts about their availability for a pre-tour training camp and warm-up fixture.
The Lions’ Kiwi head coach then revealed that as well as all the disruption caused by Covid, his preparations are being undermined by a lack of clarity about Premiership Rugby’s stance on player release.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has issued a warning to Premiership players
The English clubs have already refused to shift their Premiership final, which is taking place at Twickenham on June 26, to assist the Lions who face Japan at Murrayfield on the same day.
And yet another political row is brewing between the Lions and the antagonistic PRL, who may even block access to players whose club campaigns finish before Gatland intends to gather his squad in Jersey on June 13.
The danger is that marginal selection calls will go against Premiership players, posing a threat to the ambitions of English stars, but also to prominent Celts such as Stuart Hogg, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Louis Rees-Zammit and Jonny Gray.
Remarkably, the brinkmanship continues barely three weeks before the tour squad is announced. The PRL policy on player release would also apply to those from Saracens, who are currently in the Championship but remain Premiership shareholders. Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje are shoo-ins, but this factor could count against Jamie George, Elliot Daly and the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako.
Preparations for the tour are being undermined by a lack of clarity on player release
Gatland raised the alarm on Tuesday, saying: ‘I’ve got to be conscious of the fact that we still don’t know what the situation is with PRL. It’s not just the English players — you’re talking about Welsh and Scottish players as well. Looking at the squad, there could be 16-20 English-based players. We’re trying to get a resolution on what PRL’s stance is on the release of players.
‘We understand about the Premiership final, but we are asking can players be released when they’ve finished their club campaign? We hope to be together for a couple of weeks in Jersey leading into the warm-up game against Japan. If players are not available for that preparation time, unfortunately some of those may miss out.
‘I think the Lions are talking to PRL this week. I’m just hoping we get some resolution and common sense will prevail, so we don’t have to go through the squad, start looking at 50-50 calls on players and thinking, ‘Well, he’s based in England so unfortunately he’s not going to be available to us’.’
Danger that marginal selection calls will go against Premiership players like Taulupe Faletau
Gatland and his assistants held a preliminary selection meeting in south-west London on Monday and were in agreement about approximately 25 players who should be picked for the tour. The other places in a likely 36-man squad remain up for debate.
England players will be particularly uneasy about political interference harming their prospects after the national team finished fifth in the recent Six Nations.
‘There’s no doubt that some of those players didn’t have the greatest Six Nations this year,’ said Gatland. ‘But a lot of them have credit from past successes.
‘It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago, when some of them would have been the first names on the team sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about those English players.’