Lions' leading players to miss start of NZ tour

By Gavin Mairs

The Lions play their first match, against a New Zealand Rugby Provincial Union XV, on June 3 in Whangarei. Photo / Getty Images.
The Lions play their first match, against a New Zealand Rugby Provincial Union XV, on June 3 in Whangarei. Photo / Getty Images.

The next head coach of the British and Irish Lions, widely expected to be Warren Gatland, will again face the challenge of being without England's leading players at the start of the tour after Premiership Rugby confirmed that its final will take place on May 27, seven days before the Lions' first match in New Zealand.

It underscores the need for a shake-up of the global season, which is being discussed by World Rugby.

The Lions play their first match, against a New Zealand Rugby Provincial Union XV, on June 3 in Whangarei. They face the Auckland Blues four days later and the Canterbury Crusaders on June 10.

Players involved in the English final are almost certain to miss the opening game and will travel to New Zealand without any time with the squad, who are likely to assemble two weeks before they depart for the tour.

Players in the French Top 14, such as Toulon's Leigh Halfpenny, are also in danger of missing out completely as their competition runs into mid-June. The Lions have said they want to avoid players joining the tour late.

The Top 14 final was played on June 24 this. If the French season goes that long next year then it would clash with the first test in Auckland and means players could potentially miss the first seven games of the 10-game tour. Welsh trio Jonathan Davies (Clermont), Luke Charteris (Racing 92) and Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) and Scotland's Richie Gray (Castres) could be affected.

The Pro 12 fixtures have yet to be confirmed but the final is likely to rule out a number of players for a significant part of the tour preparations.

Gatland, who was in charge of the successful tour to Australia in 2013, did not select any of the Leicester or Northampton players who had played in the Premiership final in his starting XV for the first match seven days later.

John Feehan, the Lions chief executive, has admitted that it is "difficult to come up with a season structure that would give the Lions more time together ahead of departure".

The agreement between the Lions and Sanzar, the body representing the three major southern-hemisphere unions, will expire after this tour and the need to increase preparation time in future is likely to form a major part of negotiations over the next deal.

Meanwhile Bristol, who return to the Premiership for the first time in seven seasons, will open their league campaign against 2012 champions Harlequins in the London double header, on Saturday, Sept 3, at Twickenham. Saracens will start their title defence in the other half of that London double bill, taking on Worcester.

A number of teams will again take 'home' matches away from their normal grounds, with Saracens facing Harlequins at Wembley on April 8 and Bath playing Leicester at Twickenham on the same day.

The Anglo-Welsh Cup is returning, kicking off on the weekend of Nov 4-6, with fixtures to be announced later this month.

England internationals Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie have all agreed new contracts with Exeter.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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