Warren Gatland has hit out at Premiership Rugby Limited and warned that British & Irish Lions players face the risk of serious injury if they are not given adequate time to prepare for the 2021 tour.
Gatland – the Lions head coach in 2013 and 2017 – has repeatedly called for the team to be given at least another week of training before they travel to the southern hemisphere.
Discussions over how the Lions trip to South Africa in 2021 will fit into the rugby calendar remain ongoing but the PRL chief executive, Mark McCafferty, has already refused to accommodate a change in the English season to help out, describing such a move as “suicidal” to his competition.
During the Lions tour to New Zealand last summer Gatland’s side played the first of their 10 matches only three days after landing. The trip to South Africa is likely to feature eight matches in five weeks. “If the Lions is supposed to be the best of the best, you have to give them adequate preparation,” said Gatland, who is unbeaten in two Test series as the team’s coach.
“I felt in New Zealand my biggest concern was flying on the Monday, arriving on the Wednesday, and then playing that Saturday. By doing that we were opening up players to the potential of injury risk.
“My view is that by taking the field as early as we did in New Zealand without adequate preparation, we were doing that. I’m not the only who has said that, everyone has.”
Gatland has three Lions tours on his CV – he was forwards coach alongside Ian McGeechan in South Africa in 2009 – and knows exactly what is involved working at elite level.
“If you need not the best but adequate preparation, then I find it ironic major nations send teams to the Gold Coast [Australia] for two weeks to prepare for a sevens programme and the Lions can’t go to Hong Kong,” Gatland said. “I don’t know why they can do that and you can’t send your No 1 team away to prepare. Why wouldn’t you want the Lions to have at least a week to prepare together?
“If it’s in the UK or Ireland before you fly out to South Africa, that would be adequate. It’s his [McCafferty’s] choice, but it just makes things difficult really. He has his opinion and I have mine.”
Last summer the Lions played just 72 hours after arriving in New Zealand and scraped past a weak Provincial Barbarians team 13‑7.
Gatland cited the example of the Wales No 8 Ross Moriarty – who sustained a back injury in that game in Whangerei – as an example of a player who was hit hard by having to go straight into competition.
Moriarty was forced home from the tour because of the problem and spent long periods of the season just finished on the sidelines.
“I look back now and with Ross it was a really unusual injury, a back and nerve injury,” Gatland said. “Was that caused by the flight time? A lack of preparation? Jetlag? Or the pressure of the travel up from Whangerei? It’s a possibility it could have occurred from that.”
Gatland is in Argentina preparing for Wales’s two clashes with the Pumas. The 54-year-old was angry at PRL’s refusal to release the England-based players Josh Adams, Tomas Francis and Luke Charteris for his team’s 22-20 victory against South Africa in Washington DC, a game which fell outside World Rugby’s designated Test window.
The Worcester wing Adams and the Exeter prop Francis have since been called up anyway and both are involved in Gatland’s squad to face Argentina in San Juan on Saturday.
Pressed further on PRL’s refusal to help out the Lions, Gatland could not resist another dig and said: “I don’t want to talk about PRL, it’s obviously the best competition in the world, isn’t it?”