Rob Baxter slams Lions’ stance over Prem player release

Date published: April 15 2021

Rob Baxter has described the British and Irish Lions’ stance as “a little bit disingenuous” over player release ahead of this summer’s South Africa tour.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland insists players based in the Premiership could see their tour prospects harmed if its restrictions on player release are not relaxed.

Gatland has called for “common sense to prevail” when Lions chiefs meet Premiership Rugby (PRL) – the organisation representing the 12 top-flight clubs in England, plus Saracens – this week in the hope of thrashing out an agreement.

Currently it is thought that even players not appearing in the Premiership final on June 26 – which takes place on the same weekend as the Lions’ warm-up Test against Japan at Murrayfield – are blocked from joining up with Gatland’s squad prior to departure for South Africa.

Two-week training camp

A likely 36-man playing group is set to be announced on May 6, and Gatland is planning a two-week training camp in Jersey leading into the Japan game. The regular Premiership season ends on June 12, with semi-finals a week later.

Speaking on Tuesday, Gatland said: “We understand about the Premiership final and players involved in that, but we hope to be together for a couple of weeks of preparation leading into the warm-up game against Japan.

“If some players are not available for that preparation time, there are some tough calls to make. What we are asking is can they be released a little bit earlier, when they’ve finished their club campaign?

“I am 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 think ‘well, he’s based in England so unfortunately he’s not going to be available to us’.”

Premiership champions Exeter have strong Lions squad contenders in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Henry Slade, Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds.

Chiefs rugby director Baxter said: “The Lions have known the Premiership schedule for a long time now – I think about a year – so they have known exactly what the scenario was, they’ve known there is no way of cutting that season short.

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“Everyone has known when the Premiership season is going to finish, so for the Lions to now turn around and say that this is a scenario is a little bit disingenuous, I think, because they have known our fixture list for a long time.

“Secondly, I have got every confidence that Warren Gatland will pick the team that he feels will do the job for him because that’s the kind of coach he is.

“I don’t think if there was a player playing in the Premiership final that Warren Gatland thinks is an important player in his squad that he will leave him out. I wouldn’t.

“It is an unfortunate situation, but at the end of the day, it has not been created by the Premiership, so we have to get on with it.”

Baxter continued: “If I am Warren Gatland and I am sitting watching guys play outstandingly well in Premiership semi-finals and finals, do I decide I don’t want them to be part of the Lions tour because they have missed a week’s training?

“So the management I will take with our players is they will get themselves on the tour by playing well, and the better they play in the bigger games they play, the more chance they have got of being involved in anything.

“I don’t for one second, despite whatever is going to be said, think that Warren Gatland will not take a player he deems to be important to him on that tour because they miss a week’s training or they miss a warm-up game.

“It is not like the player will need game-time, because the players will be playing. If they think they are good players, they will be involved.”