The player release row between the British & Irish Lions and Premiership clubs is set to rumble into next week amid claims from within the league that the tourists are being “disingenuous” following Warren Gatland’s warning that squad hopefuls based in England could miss out.
Representatives from the Lions and the Premiership held talks on Tuesday in an effort to agree a deal that would enable England-based players to join Gatland’s key preparation camp in Jersey, once their domestic seasons have finished, but were unable to reach an agreement with negotiations set to continue next week.
The two-week camp is due to start in the same week as the Premiership play-offs and Gatland is resigned to being without the semi-finalists in Jersey, and the finalists for the Lions’ warmup Test against Japan, given it is on the same day as the domestic showpiece. Gatland, however, fears that all English clubs will withhold all players from the Jersey camp and the Japan Test and said on Tuesday that would put them at a disadvantage for selection.
The stumbling block is thought to be financial, though there is also frustration from the Premiership clubs at what they perceive to be their final being overshadowed by a Lions Test on the same day. The Lions paid the clubs about £70,000 a player in 2017 and in that instance the selected were allowed to join camps in Wales and Ireland once their domestic campaigns had finished. With the prospect of full crowds in South Africa implausible, however, the Lions are cash-strapped.
The Northampton director of rugby, Chris Boyd, believes “common sense must surely prevail” in an indication he does not envisage having to stop Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar joining the Jersey camp if selected, should Saints fail to reach the Premiership play-offs. Exeter’s Rob Baxter, however, insisted the issue had “not been created by the Premiership”, and questioned whether Gatland would in reality overlook players who had to miss the Lions camp and warm-up fixture because of the Premiership final. But Gatland names his squad on 6 May – long before the Premiership semi-finalists are known, even if defending champions Exeter are expected to qualify.
“The Lions have known the Premiership schedule for a long time now so they know there was no way of cutting the season short,” said Baxter. “For the Lions to now turn around and say this is the scenario is a little bit disingenuous.
“Secondly, I have every confidence that Warren Gatland will pick the team that will do the job for him as that is the kind of coach that he is. I don’t think if there is a player playing in the Premiership final, if Warren Gatland thinks he is an important player in his squad, that he would leave him out.”