Bath coach Stuart Hooper has now also lashed out at Warren Gatland over his stand-off with Premiership Rugby over the release and selection of England-based players for the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour.
The B&I Lions camp is at loggerheads with Premiership Rugby, after the latter has threatened to block the release of players for a Lions training camp, which has led Warren Gatland to warn that he could leave England’s star players out of the tour.
Exeter Chiefs’ boss Rob Baxter was first to hit back at Gatland over his threat to overlook England-based players over Premiership Rugby’s strict player-release policies and Bath’s Hooper has now joined him in his criticism of the Lions head coach.
‘These are questions where, as a Premiership, the decision will be made as a Premiership because there are agreements in place,’ Hooper said at Bath’s weekly media briefing. ‘As romantic and as much as everyone loves the Lions, and as important a part of our rugby calendar that is, there is also a professional agreement here and it’s there for a reason.
‘We have to protect that as a Premiership unit, we have to protect ourselves and protect our players but we are open to conversations to make sure that we can help the guys have the very best experience they can. I don’t actually know the specifics of whether it would have to be unanimous [decision by the Premiership to release players early], but it would definitely be discussed at the board level, for sure.
‘To be honest, I haven’t had a clear understanding of when the Lions will meet up and that sort of thing. It will go along the lines of reg[ulation] nine windows that are given for international rugby, so I haven’t seen when they meet up but I presume it has to fall in line with that and that is the angle that is being discussed there.
‘Those things crop up more than you might think. This year we have had internationals with Scotland with Cameron and Josh Bayliss and Jamie Bhatti, so those conversations are ones that I will always have with the guys so that they understand the reason decisions have been made around reg nine and around the release of international players so they are fully in the picture and understand rather than just do what they are told.’
Despite siding with Premiership Rugby over the ongoing saga, Hooper says he remains a staunch Lions fan.
‘The Lions are amazing. It has got that romance to it. It has got a real intangible feeling that even the very, very best players in the world turn back into the schoolboy that was first picked for his first team when they get the call-up for the Lions,’ he explained.
‘I have seen it, seen the guys who have done it before and the impact it has had on them and it’s fascinating. I love the fact there is still a real emotive drive to play for an international team and if any of our guys get the opportunity then it’s incredible for them and as a club, we will stand right beside them, incredibly proud of that achievement.
‘It’s not about developing over a long period of time into the team you want to be, it’s about having a very clear picture of how you want to play, how you are going to beat the Springboks in their own backyard and picking people to fill that. Who knows? I’m hoping across the board from a spectator’s point of view that there are a few wildcards and a few people that we don’t expect to be picked but who knows.’
Photo: Andrew Cornaga/www.Photosport.nz