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The British & Irish Lions: Gatland urges English Premiership Rugby to release players for Japan warm-up

October 31st, 2020Rugby
As former Lions captains Sam Warburton of Wales and Ireland’s Paul O'Connell back England’s lock/flanker Maro Itoje to lead the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021, Head Coach Warren Gatland is locked in deep discussions with England’s Premiership Rugby trying to persuade them to release players for the recently arranged warm-up Test with Japan on Saturday 26th of June at BT Murrayfield in Scotland.

Interestingly enough, Itoje has elected to remain with his club Saracens despite their automatic relegation from the Premiership for salary cap breaches when the 2019-20 Season comes to an end. As a result Itoje will be playing second tier league rugby, in the RFU Championship next year, which ironically could ease Gatland’s path to securing his release.

However, Premiership players across the board are set to miss the Lions warm-up match against Japan, given the league’s current opposition to releasing players outside World Rugby's Test window.

The Lions’ head coach has urged Premiership Rugby to lift its barrier on releasing players for the Lions' v Japan warm-up Test, arguing that it would prejudice the squad selection prospects for England players. Ever the optimist, Gatland believes "common sense will prevail" as talks continue.

Nonetheless, it will be a tough ask for some England players, as despite attempts by Lions senior management to move it forward by one week, the 2021 Premiership final is still being staged on the same day as the Japan warm-up Test, in order to maintain its alignment with the PRO14 edition.

In the interim Itoje remains the headline player from a Lions perspective at least. Certainly he was among the standout performers during the drawn series against New Zealand in 2017 and has been in outstanding form for both his club Saracens and England.

Warburton, Lions’ skipper during both the 2013 and 2017 tours is full of praise:

"Every game I see him play, he's up for man of the match." 

"I spent two months with him on tour three years ago. I remember looking at him in training and thinking, 'that guy can be captain on the next tour'.

"He strikes me as a very good leader as well."

O’Connell, who was captain when the Lions lost a momentous series 2-1 during their last South Africa tour back in 2009, predicts that Warren Gatland will once again opt for a forward as captain.

"It probably hints towards Itoje." 

"That's where the Lions have gone in the last few tours and it has been successful.

"Certainly in 1997 it was a success with Martin Johnson. He was young, abrasive, competitive. He didn't say a lot, just got the job done."

A swift reminder to book those British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021 packages before it’s too late. 

Undoubtedly, the debate on releasing key England players to join The British & Irish Lions Tour squad and play in the warm-up Test will rumble on. However, looking at the conundrum through the eyes of a fan it would be a travesty should the cream of English rugby be excluded from the opportunity. Which is why, I would hope that rugby fans everywhere are prepared to make their opinions known on the subject, as players participating in the Premiership final might lose out altogether if the Premiership final date is not shifted. 

Certainly those English players from clubs not involved in the Premiership final should be free to join the Lions squad and play in the Test against Japan if selected. Another meeting of minds is called for and an inevitable compromise that is good for the game and fully embraces the history and traditions of The British & Irish Lions Tour. 

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