Warren Gatland has no concerns about picking Championship-playing Saracens for the Lions, claiming the likes of Maro Itoje and his club colleagues would be in the enviable position of being the freshest players going on the 2021 tour to South Africa rather than being undercooked for elite-level rugby. 

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The London club faces tier-two rugby when the Championship begins in January following the club’s automatic relegation from the Premiership following repeated breaches of the salary cap.

That means England players such as touted Lions skippers Itoje and Owen Farrell, along with other previous Lions tourists Jamie George, the Vunipola brothers and Elliot Daly, won’t have elite rugby to play once the 2021 Six Nations ends in March (Scotland’s Sean Maitland also previously toured with the Lions).

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Billy Vunipola sets the scene ahead of England’s clash with Italy on Saturday

Saracens’ England contingent will face a 14-week break in between England’s March 21 game away to Ireland and the Lions playing Japan at Murrayfield on June 26, but Gatland has no qualms they will only have some Championship game to fill that three-month gap.  

“Those players who are involved with England, the ones that are selected from Saracens, the thing about it is they will probably come in the freshest of everyone,” said Gatland, who is looking at taking a squad of 35/36 to South Africa, a selection that will have a 20 or 21/15 forwards/backs split.  

“It’s how they are managed from the Championship perspective in terms of games. You would probably think they would be reasonably comfortable in being able to win that competition and that’s being able to rotate players. A lot of those players will have been involved in the past, are pretty experienced, have a lot of games under their belt and a lot of rugby over a long time.

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“This may be a perfect chance for them to almost look at the year as rehab in terms of their body, some strength and conditioning, some fitness work, some individual skill work.  They will be involved in the Six Nations and probably having a bit of a break and doing some training.

“As we get close to picking the squad we will be contacting players to see what their training regime is like and where they are from a conditioning perspective because that is going to be important going to South Africa. A lot of those players have, for me, time in the bank because they have been performers on the big stage and have performed when it mattered.

“They have performed in Europe, performed in Premiership finals, performed for England and that’s what quality players can do. You have seen that in the past with big names that they can be out for a while and give them one or two games under their belt and be back up to speed very quickly.”

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