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Bath the latest Premiership club to answer Gatland's Lions selection threat

By Liam Heagney

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Challenge Cup semi-finalists Bath have become the latest Gallagher Premiership club to wade into the Lions debate ignited on Tuesday by Warren Gatland’s threat about English-based players potentially losing out on 50/50 selection calls if their clubs don’t make them available for the pre-tour preparation camp.    

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While Lions boss Gatland is understanding of the situation regarding any player that might be involved in the June 26 Premiership final, he believes it is important that players not involved in that showpiece are released to the tour party early despite the current regulation nine players release window agreement preventing that from happening. 

Meetings have taken place this week between the PRL, the RPA and Lions administrators and Exeter boss Rob Baxter had his say on Gatland taking the situation public, branding his player release comments at Tuesday’s coaching staff announcement as disingenuous.

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Kurtley Beale guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson
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Kurtley Beale guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

Now Bath boss Stuart Hooper has given his take on the Lions situation. His club have previous Lions tourists in their ranks in the guise of Anthony Watson and Taulupe Faletau, who were both part of the XVs in the drawn 2017 Test series in New Zealand, while Sam Underhill is also touted as a potential tour pick this time around to South Africa.

Hooper explained he fully understands the ambitions that Bath players have for the Lions but he also laid out the Premiership’s view and the need for agreements to be respected, just as were during the Six Nations when Bath had dealings with Scotland over Cameron Redpath, Josh Bayliss and Jamie Bhatti and their availability.  

“These are questions where the decision will be made as a Premiership because there are agreements in place,” said Hooper 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.

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“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 [any 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 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, 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.”

Beneath the red tape, though, Hooper is a Lions fan but he was unclear how many Bath players might be picked by Gatland for this latest tour. “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.

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“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 a difficult question (who will get picked). There are obvious ones who have been talked about before and who have been on tours before, the likes of Toby and Anthony, those guys, and we can all write them on a piece of paper.

“The Lions has that effect on the coaches as well so we had a conversation the other day on who is going to be picked and the reality is that it depends how they want to play the game. It depends what Warren and more this time with Gregor (Townsend) as attack coach, how they want to play the game depends massively on who you are going to pick because it is a short period of time.

“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.”

Quizzed on Underhill’s prospects after he missed the recent Guinness Six Nations with England through injury, Hooper added: “I wouldn’t say he was a wildcard if he got picked. He has consistently been one of the top, top back-rowers in the time he has played international rugby. Will he get picked? I’m not sure. If he does get picked he will be deserving and I wouldn’t see him as a wildcard. Look back to years gone but, Lions tours have taken uncapped players and it’s interesting to see if that happens again.”

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Bath the latest Premiership club to answer Gatland's Lions selection threat

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