British and Irish Lions chief Ben Calveley issued a plea for Premiership Rugby to play ball and release players for next June’s Test against Japan to create a “celebration of rugby” at the end of a desperate season.
The Lions will take on Japan on home soil after agreeing a one-off match on 26 June ahead of the squad’s departure to South Africa, where they will face the world champion Springboks in a three-Test series after five warm-up matches.
That Murrayfield match will clash with the Premiership final at Twickenham, but given that it falls outside of World Rugby’s international window, it does not count under Regulation 9 that forces clubs to release their players, and Premiership Rugby have made it clear they have no plan to change tact now and do so.
The debate over the release of Premiership players has been raging since the last tour in 2017, when head coach Warren Gatland pleaded with rugby authorities for a longer preparation and tour manager John Spencer called on the Lions to be brought into the discussion of the new global calendar, which took place in San Francisco without an independent representative of the famous side.
Managing director Calveley was appointed in the wake of the tour of New Zealand to do just that, but a breakthrough never came in the stand-off with Premiership Rugby, who rejected requests to move their final forward by a week to give the Lions the provision for an extra week’s training together.
“Premiership Rugby have already announced a fixture list for next year and we don’t anticipate that changing, but we have been in dialogue with PRL for a long time about this match – for the best part of 12 months or so,” Calveley said.
“We have taken this match up to Scotland and we will be at a different kick-off time to the Premiership final and we absolutely accept that this is not a Regulation 9 fixture, so there is no obligation for the clubs to release any of their players.
“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. 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.”
Although only two of the 12 Premiership teams will feature in the final, the league has made it clear that no players will be released until the international window begins two days after the Japan match, meaning not only will Gatland be unable to select any English players, but also any Irish, Welsh and Scottish internationals who ply their trade in the Premiership.
Furthermore, Calveley understands that it also includes Saracens, who will be playing in the Championship next season, and would see the Lions miss out on Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and a host of other Lions contenders. He has not yet given up hope though that the Premiership could change their tune and release the players selected by Gatland in order to create a day for British rugby fans to remember, with the Premiership final followed by the Lions clash.
“We are open to continuing dialogue but at the moment, given this is a non-Regulation 9 fixture, we understand that and respect their position,” Calveley added. “But we would of course be hopeful those players not playing in the final would be available to play in this match, although that would require a change to the position as it currently stands.
“Whoever ends up putting on the Lions jersey, and that is down to Warren and his coaching team to select the players, we will have an exceptional group of players to take the field and it will be a wonderful match we will put on up in Murrayfield. My view is these two fixtures can co-exist and can work together to be something of a celebration of rugby at the end of what is an incredibly difficult time for the fans. They deserve to have a little something to get excited about, don’t they, and hopefully we can provide that for them.”