Premiership Rugby have been accused of “double-standards” over player welfare by former British and Irish Lions manager John Spencer after the league agreed a new fixture schedule that requires clubs play a game every four days when the season resumes next month.
Spencer, who was manager of the tour to New Zealand four years ago, accused the clubs of being both “hypocritical and disingenuous” after arranging three rounds of midweek matches to enable their season to be completed in full, culminating by the final on Oct 24.
English clubs previously refused to countenance playing just one midweek round of matches to enable the Lions to have an extra week’s preparation for the tours of Australia in 2013 and New Zealand and have been critical of the impact of the Lions playing twice a week on player welfare.
The revised Premiership fixture schedule will now see clubs play seven matches in 28 days before the quarter finals of the rearranged European competitions.
With Exeter Northampton Bristol and Leicester all still technically in contention to reach both the Premiership and Champions Cup final, they would have to play 14 games in 11 weeks to do so.
With England due to play six matches before the start of the new Premiership season on Nov 21, Spencer said the clubs had lost any credibility over using player welfare as an excuse not to reach a compromise with the Lions.
“This is complete double standards by PRL,” said Spencer, who was also a Lions director for the tours of South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013. “Their refusal to do it before was disingenuous and hypocritical when you look at what they are prepared to do now.
“We had previously asked them to play just one midweek match played before Christmas and we could then get an extra week’s training with the squad. Instead we were left with the ridiculous position of those players involved in the Premiership final meeting us with us the day before we flew to New Zealand and six days before our first game. No Premiership coach would put up with that.
“How can they talk about player welfare to us now? With the Lions only playing every four years surely it is not beyond the wit of man to make arrangements now in advance.”
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach for the tour of South Africa next year, made a final plea, in a Telegraph Sport interview last month, to the Premiership to reschedule their final next season as part of the negotiations over next season given the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.
However Phil Winstanley, PRL’s rugby director, insisted that the decision to stage three midweek rounds was only a response to the unprecedented situation because of the pandemic and would not undermine their stance with the Lions
“I don’t think so; it’s really important that we maintain that position,” Winstanley said.
”We don’t want to have back-to-back games, which is why we need to manage it properly. In the past we have been quite critical of the Lions, not wanting to play four-day turnarounds, and the same should apply to us.
“We want to manage that correctly for the benefit of the players. We have engaged with the directors of rugby on how we manage that, whether that’s limiting game time or limiting turnaround time. It’s a proactive discussion but we recognise that we need to come up with a solution that involves both the RPA (Rugby Players’ Association) and RFU.”
The season will resume with season with Harlequins facing Sale Sharks at the Twickenham Stoop at 7.45pm on Aug 14, one of four games to be televised live on the opening weekend of fixtures since the league was suspended in March.
The revised schedule will also include a Monday matches for the first time, with Bath’s match against Wasps at the Recreation Ground on Monday, August 31, a bank holiday, to be shown live at 3pm.
Darren Child, PRL chief executive, said every club was supportive of the schedule.
“We are very excited that we have managed to find a way,” said Childs. “Many other leagues have not taken that choice, they’ve cancelled rounds, but we’ve been able to find a way of doing it and we think we’ve found a way of doing it safely.”
Winstanley however admitted there was no room in the schedule for games to be postponed if a club experienced a positive test for Covid-19 that required a number of players to self-isolate for 14 days.
“There is no space to reschedule games, so if we get into a situation where a club can’t field a team, we will have to come up with a solution, but there won’t be any replays,” Winstanley added.
Doubts surround the venue for London Irish’s first home match, against Northampton Saints on Saturday, Aug 22, however.
Irish’s tenancy at the Madejski Stadium expired during lockdown but construction is not yet complete at Brentford Community Stadium, where they are due to move to.
If the stadium is not yet complete, Irish may have to forfeit home advantage or look for a temporary ground share.
"It’s a pretty unusual time," admitted Premiership Rugby's chief financial officer Jan Gooze-Zijl. "London Irish do have to leave the Madejski. There are a couple of options available to them and we hope to confirm that in the next few days."