FORMER Lions manager John Spencer has accused Premiership Rugby (PRL) of double standards over player welfare.
The Rugby Paper understands the umbrella organisation of English rugby’s top professional league has drafted proposals to play three midweek rounds of fixtures – Rounds 16, 19 and 21, with another in reserve – in order to complete the 2019/20 season.
If confirmed, the three remaining Premiership teams in the Champions Cup – Exeter, Northampton and Saracens – will face a crazy schedule of nine games in just under six weeks, from the proposed start date of August 15 through to the penultimate Premiership round on Wednesday, September 23.
This is despite PRL refusing to a request from the Lions last October to shorten the domestic season by playing an extra round during the Six Nations or introducing a midweek round of fixtures into next season’s calendar.
The Lions wanted more time to prepare for the three-Test series against South Africa but are now stuck with a five-week, eight-match tour.
“It just shows the intransience of people in the game. I am a passionate Lions man, and when you have been there, you understand what it means to fans who follow the team with their life savings, and you see what it means to the players,” Spencer told TRP.
“I thought to forfeit one midweek match to give us another week’s training was little to forfeit for what is so important to the Lions. That problem could have so easily been resolved.
“When we came back (from New Zealand in 2017), they blamed the Lions for injuring players, it happened so regularly it was almost boring.
“Saracens in particular played their players, non-stop, at the beginning of the season without any respite at all. When we compared the playing times at Christmas with the Irish contingent the English had played twice as many.
“I know the coaches want to win Premiership matches but it is no good crying player welfare one minute and then playing them to death.”
Spencer, who has handed over the managerial reins of the Lions to Jason Leonard, was an outspoken critic of the schedule of the season during the tour to New Zealand.
And the current president of the Barbarians is dismayed that one of rugby’s crown jewels continues to be tarnished by self-interest elsewhere.
“I’m saddened by the fact the Lions are continually being reduced,” he said.
“The problem from a coaching point of view, if you are taking 40 players on tour, is that you have to give them all a start before the first Test, to be fair to them.
“If you only have eight matches and three of them are Tests, that leaves you five matches to sort out what international coaches have four years to do. And one match is played the Saturday after the Premiership final so you can’t play any of your Premiership finalists in that.
“Our schedule was ridiculous, we had players playing in the two finals – the PRO14 and the Premiership – and then they met us for the first time on the Sunday. We flew out Monday morning, arrived on Wednesday in Auckland, had a light training session on Thursday, the captain’s run Friday and a match on Saturday. No Premiership coach would allow that but it’s alright for the Lions.
“When you look at important games like the Lions against the Bulls or the Crusaders – really good matches where people in the host country have delayed their retirement to play against the Lions – would you rather watch that or would you rather that Worcester and London Irish didn’t have to overlap with the Six Nations? To me, there’s no argument.”