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Gregor Townsend blasts English PRL as row explodes over access

By Bryn Palmer
Scotland's head coach Gregor Townsend (R) talks to his players ahead of the Six Nations international rugby union match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland on February 24, 2024. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has hit out at the governing body of England’s Premiership clubs for refusing to release his players for training camps in the Six Nations’ fallow weeks.

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Townsend said his side were at a competitive disadvantage before Saturday’s Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield with eight of his squad including co-captain Finn Russell unable to join half of their scheduled sessions before the game.

This was despite no Gallagher Premiership games taking place on the weekend of 16-18 February. There were two Premiership Rugby Cup semi-finals but neither featured any Scotland squad members.

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England’s top flight has taken a complete break for the Six Nations period since the end of January, with the next round of games not scheduled until the weekend of 22-24 March, a week after the championship concludes.

After guiding Scotland to a record-equalling fourth consecutive Calcutta Cup triumph over England, Townsend said preparations for their next match against Italy on 9 March would be similarly compromised by the stance taken by Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL).

As things stand, the likes of Russell and Bath team-mate Cameron Redpath (plus Josh Bayliss if he has recovered from concussion), Saracens flanker Andy Christie, Northampton duo Rory Hutchinson and Elliott Millar-Mills, Sale winger Arron Reed, Exeter prop Alex Hepburn and Bristol back-rower Magnus Bradbury will be forced to sit idle this week while the rest of Townsend’s squad start preparing for the trip to Rome.

“We don’t have the best preparation,” Townsend said. “Going into the Calcutta Cup game, England had double the preparation because our English-based players aren’t allowed to train with us even though there are no Premiership games; even though in this coming week clubs are off for a week.

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“We’re still not allowed to have the likes of Finn Russell training with us this week. Two training sessions was all we had as a team going into the England game, where it would have been four if we’d had them in the week before.

“I’d imagine it’s going to be the same situation this time, which is a real disadvantage that we have. I don’t think it’s right for the competition’s overall integrity.

“It’s a credit to the players that they went into the England game after two sessions as a whole squad and delivered that performance.”

England’s full squad were able to train together for two full weeks before the Scotland clash due to a longstanding financial agreement – the Professional Game Agreement – between the Premiership clubs, PRL and the RFU, who effectively pay for access to the players.

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Townsend said Scottish Rugby had taken up the issue, which has not changed from previous seasons, with PRL but had made no inroads into achieving a deal which might see his players released.

Gregor Townsend
Press Association

The umbrella body for England’s top-flight clubs maintains they are adhering to World Rugby regulations on the issue, with Welsh and Italian players plying their trade in the Premiership faced with the same scenario.

“There is apparently a bigger picture of player release, but the clubs have indicated to us that they want their players training with us, because there are no training sessions for them, or they are in the middle of a pre-season period,” Townsend said.

“There is no game in the Premiership for seven or eight weeks but we still can’t have our co-captain – who has been lighting up the Premiership – even come into camp for two days’ training.

Regulation 9 is that we can only take players from outside of Scotland when there is an international week’s training. That is to stop players missing out on club games. But when there are no club competitions, it doesn’t make any sense that you’re still not allowing a player to travel up from Bath or wherever. They could be spending time with their families and helping our preparation.”

Townsend said that during initial preparations to face England, Scotland were running with Richie Simpson, a 21-year-old semi-professional player on a partnership contract between Glasgow Warriors and Super Series side Ayrshire Bulls, at fly-half for their first two squad sessions in Russell’s absence.

Gregor Townsend
Press Association

“He hasn’t played a game of pro rugby and he was playing inside Sione and Huw Jones, outside George Horne. It’s not right and I really wish this situation was better because it’s not fair for our players.

“It comes from PRL. When we’re playing England and they don’t allow our English-based players to come up, I don’t think they will change for Italy. If they do, why they didn’t do it this week is even more disappointing. PRL have told the clubs the players have to go back. Bath are off this week so the players won’t be training.”

RugbyPass understands that nothing is likely to change in the short or medium term, with a resolution only likely when a new global calendar – announced by World Rugby just before the end of last year’s Rugby World Cup – comes into force in 2026, when there will be designated international and domestic windows.

But Townsend – who is a member of World Rugby’s Men’s High Performance Committee – may decide to raise the issue at a ‘Shape of the Game’ meeting being held in London this week.

A Premiership Rugby spokesman said: “Premiership Rugby can confirm the movement of players during the Guinness Six Nations fallow weeks as per World Rugby’s Regulation 9 – Availability of Players.

Gregor Townsend
Press Association

“Premiership Rugby has a long-standing agreement with the RFU for the release of England players to prepare for Test matches.

“As per World Rugby’s Regulation 9, all International players are released for the Unions in the defined periods and then return to their Premiership clubs – as per previous campaigns.

“While a review of World Rugby Regulation 9 compensation is undertaken ahead of a new global calendar from 2026, Premiership Rugby will continue to adhere to the regulation as it stands.”

While Townsend will likely have to do without his England-based players this week, he may also be denied the services of home-based Glasgow centre Sione Tuipulotu, who was forced off with a medial knee ligament injury in the 30-21 victory over England.

“It wasn’t an injury that took him off straight away so that could be a positive,” he said. “But it’s definitely a knee injury where he wasn’t able to run at full capacity in the second half, so we’ll see.”

After the setback of having a winning try ruled out in the final play of their 20-16 home defeat by France a fortnight ago, beating England has revived Scotland’s hopes of a top-two finish for the first time in the Six Nations.

Victory over Italy in Rome would equal their best tally of three wins in a campaign and could give them an outside shot at the championship on the final day when they travel to face Ireland in Dublin, depending on how the title favourites fare against England at Twickenham in round four.

“We’ll always have something to play for in Dublin because there’s a Triple Crown that’s now available,” Townsend added. “But the focus is on Rome and on playing well.

“We know we’re going to be tested by a very good Italian team who almost beat England. They’re always hugely motivated for the Scotland game and they play a style of rugby in dry conditions which really tests defences.

“We have to be better than Saturday’s performance. We know that. That will be all our focus is on.”

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