Maro Itoje’s hopes of captaining the British & Irish Lions in South Africa have been boosted after Premiership Rugby finally agreed to release players once their clubs’ domestic campaigns are over, ensuring he will be available for the key warm-up Test against Japan.
Itoje is among the leading candidates for the captaincy this summer and was last week endorsed by Sam Warburton, who has led the two previous tours under Warren Gatland. A row over player release with the 12 Premiership clubs – and Saracens – had threatened to prevent him from joining up with the Lions until after the training camp in Jersey and the Japan Test on 26 June but PRL announced a deal had been reached on Tuesday.
Itoje is likely to take part in the second leg of the Championship final on 19 June but would then be free to join the Lions camp. The regular Championship season is due to finish on 29 May before a reserve week and then the first leg of the final on 12 June. It is possible the final could move forward – if the reserve week is not required – meaning Itoje and his Saracens teammates would be available for all of the Jersey camp.
If the deal – thought to be worth £45,000 per player to the clubs – has been welcomed by the Lions, the PRL has made it clear it will not allow the situation to arise again. There is great frustration within the league that the Lions arranged the Japan Test for the same day as the Premiership final, though the tourists would counter that by saying requests to move the final were rejected and that their warm-up match is taking place at Murrayfield rather than Twickenham. “This discussion was never just about money,” read a PRL statement. “It is essential that we are properly consulted – and our position respected – when fixtures are scheduled which affect the domestic season. For future Lions tours, Premiership Rugby will not release players until after the Premiership final.”
Gatland, who names his 36-man squad next Thursday, had previously warned that players based in England were at risk of missing out if a deal was not struck. “I would like to thank Premiership Rugby, as well as Pro14, for their support in agreeing to release players for the Lions,” said Gatland. “I have always said that preparation is key to a successful Lions Tour, so today’s news is very welcome and something we are appreciative of.”
Joe Launchbury has been ruled out of contention for the squad after it was confirmed he has sustained a complete rupture of his anterior cruciate ligament. It is a considerable blow to a player who has been overlooked for the previous two Lions tours and was thought to be in contention for the trip to South Africa despite missing the Six Nations with a broken leg. Launchbury will require surgery and will be out of action for at least six months.
The RFU has again been forced to defend Eddie Jones’s consultancy work with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan after New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett explained how closely he was working with the England head coach. Barrett revealed Jones is currently in Japan and working with Suntory just a week after the RFU released details of its review into England’s dismal Six Nations campaign.
The RFU maintains Jones’s role is “in no way a conflict with his England team priorities” despite the fact that Japan have been drawn in the same 2023 World Cup pool as England and a number of their players are based at Suntory.