As if the British and Irish Lions did not already have enough hurdles ahead of this year's South Africa tour, head coach Warren Gatland revealed on Tuesday that they are still negotiating with the Gallagher Premiership over the release of players.
With the ever-more squeezed Lions due to travel to Jersey for a two-week training camp ahead of a warm-up match against Japan in Edinburgh on 26 June, there was always going to be a clash with players involved in the Premiership semi-finals and final on the last two weekends in June.
Gatland, however, revealed that the clubs who are not involved in the playoffs could still refuse to release players even though their domestic season would be over on 12 June.
"That's the current situation as I understand it and it's not just English players playing there," Gatland told a news conference where he announced his four assistants for the tour.
"I think the Lions are talking to the PRL (Premiership Rugby Ltd) this week and I'm just hoping we'll get some resolution. It's a big one for us that when those players are finished with their clubs, they are available to us.
"In the past the Lions have always compensated clubs for the release of players – something they didn't really have to do because the regulations allow for release on a certain date.
"What we are asking for is can they be released a little bit earlier, when they’ve finished their club campaign?
"I’m just hoping we can get some resolution and that common sense will prevail, so we don’t have to go through the squad and 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'.
"The last thing I’d want is for players to miss out on the tour because of that."
"I'm just hoping we can get some resolution and that common sense will prevail, so we don’t have to go through the squad and 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'.
Gatland also said that he was fully prepared for a situation where some selected players might opt out of what would normally be considered the pinnacle of their career due to concerns over spending so long in a secure anti-Covid bubble in South Africa where five provincial matches and three tests are pencilled in.
The New Zealander said he had pencilled in a provisional list of around 50 players, to be whittled down to around 35, and would contact them all to see if anyone was making themselves unavailable.
"I wouldn't hold it against any player and I'd understand their personal situation of being away from home, family and the challenges that's going to bring," he said. "We've got to be flexible and innovative. We've got to make sure the players' welfare is paramount for us to get things right."
Gatland's other chief selection headache comes with his Saracens contingent. The likes of Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly and Mako and Billy Vunipola would all normally have been expected to make the squad.
However, England's poor form in the Six Nations allied to the club operating in the second-tier championship with limited opportunities for the big names to shine has presented a different dynamic.
Gatland said he was seeking the balance between the above group's reputation and the form of potential challengers.
"There’s no doubt that some of those players didn’t have the greatest Six Nations this year, but a lot of them have credit from past successes – whether it’s winning in Europe, winning the Six Nations, performing well at World Cups or previous Lions tours," he said.
"It's probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them would have been the first names on the sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about them in terms of knowing what they can do and what they’ve done in the past."
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