Maro Itoje’s hopes of captaining the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa appear to have suffered a setback with England players unavailable for the pre-tour match against Japan next summer because of Premiership regulations.
The Lions confirmed on Wednesday that they will play a money-spinning “home” match against Japan at Murrayfield on 26 June, the same day as the Premiership final next season. Warren Gatland was already planning to be without players from the sides who contest that final but the Premiership Rugby board will not sanction the release of players – because the Japan match falls outside the official Test window – dealing a blow to the Lions’ preparations for facing the world champions.
Itoje, along with Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Elliot Daly and the Vunipola brothers will be playing in the Championship next season but it is believed that as one of the 13 clubs under Premiership Rugby’s umbrella, Saracens are still expected to abide by the regulations laid down by the organisation’s board.
The Lions remain hopeful the clubs may yet change their position and did not rule out striking a financial deal but one official described that as unlikely, pointing out that they have refused to release players for matches outside Test windows for more than 10 years.
Gatland could still ultimately select Itoje as captain and has namechecked the second-row as a potential option but as he cannot take part against Japan, a match described on Wednesday as a “wonderful opportunity to impress Warren” by the Lions managing director Ben Calveley, his cause would not appear to be helped. The Pro14 has been willing to move its final a week earlier in the calendar to accommodate the Lions but the Premiership has repeatedly refused to follow suit and Gatland has already warned that England players who join up late as a result are at a disadvantage when it comes to selecting his Test team.
15 J Stockdale (Ulster)
14 A Conway (Munster)
13 G Ringrose (Leinster)
12 B Aki (Connacht)
11 H Keenan (Leinster)
10 J Sexton (Leinster, capt)
9 C Murray (Munster)
1 C Healy (Leinster)
2 R Herring (Ulster)
3 A Porter (Leinster)
4 T Beirne (Munster)
5 James Ryan (Leinster)
6 C Doris (Leinster)
7 W Connors (Leinster)
8 CJ Stander (Munster)
D Heffernan (Connacht), E Byrne (Leinster), F Bealham, U Dillane (both Connacht), P O’Mahony (Munster), J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R Henshaw (all Leinster)
Eddie Jones recently said he wanted a record number of England players selected for the tour but that too may be jeopardised by the Premiership clubs’ stance, with the Lions’ first fixture in South Africa, against the Stormers, taking place just a week after the final and the Japan match.
“The position right now is that there is no sanctioning of English players to play in this fixture, but we would be keen to keep that dialogue open and we would be hopeful that that position might change,” said Calveley.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for players, not just to play in that fixture but also to put their hand up and start to impress Warren and his coaching team in advance of the tour of South Africa. Our understanding is that, as it stands, there is no agreement to release English players for the fixture against Japan. We don’t have that agreement from Premiership Rugby. They have not confirmed that players will be released for this fixture and that relates to all of the English clubs.”
Calveley also remains optimistic the tour will go ahead as planned in front of full capacity crowds, insisting the demand for home supporters to travel was “off the scale” and five times previous tours despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We are intending to go to South Africa,” he added. “There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. We have seen that sport has returned at the elite level around the world. In some countries we are seeing fans return into venues, we are seeing technology improve all the time, whether that is around testing capability or treatment for the virus and we are seeing borders open.”
Meanwhile, Finn Russell – who would also be unavailable for the Lions’ match against Japan if Racing 92 reach the Top 14 final – is set to end his year-long exile from the Scotland side, having been named on the bench for Friday’s match against Georgia. Flanker Will Connors and wing Hugo Keenan will make their Test debuts when Ireland host Italy in Saturday’s Six Nations match in Dublin.