Thursday 22 March 2018

Warren Gatland defends decision to organise Lions get-together days before European finals

Lions head coach Warren Gatland Photo: PA
Lions head coach Warren Gatland Photo: PA

Nick Purewal

Warren Gatland has defended the British and Irish Lions' scheduling their first squad get-together just days before Saracens and Gloucester take part in European finals.

Head coach Gatland thanked Saracens and Gloucester for releasing players to attend the Lions' 'messy Monday' in London, where the tourists will receive their kit ahead of the summer's Test series in New Zealand.

Saracens boss Mark McCall has branded the timing of the Lions' meeting "unbelievable", with the men in black facing Clermont in the Champions Cup final on Saturday.

Saracens cancelled training on Monday with their six Lions busy with Gatland's squad meeting, while Gloucester duo Greig Laidlaw and Ross Moriarty had to be diverted from preparations for Friday's Challenge Cup final.

Gatland insisted the Lions had not however been asked to reschedule Monday's meeting, claiming the date had been in everyone's diary for months.

"I've got to understand where they are coming from, having been involved in the situation, and I understand Mark's reasoning as well," said Gatland of Saracens boss McCall's comments.

"If it had been last week it would have potentially affected 22 clubs. I understand it's a massive week for them. But Mondays tend to be a recovery day.

"This date has been communicated months and months and months ago. Now I don't know when Saracens got the information.

"But we have told the unions about this date for a long, long time. So we haven't had any requests from anyone to move this date.

"But I understand the situation, and appreciate the fact that Saracens and Gloucester are releasing their players to us.

"If they hadn't been released to us that would have been very difficult for a number of reasons. So it does make a difference."

Saracens have provided the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Owen Farrell and Jamie George to the Lions' touring party.

McCall hit out at the Lions' timing as Saracens build towards facing Clermont in the European showdown, telling the Sunday Telegraph: "There is a Lions get-together on Monday which seems to be quite unbelievable that it is then given it is the most important week of the season.

"You'd have thought someone would have had the foresight to see that it might affect the club."

But Lions coach Gatland insisted the traditional first squad meeting is vital in setting the tone for next month's New Zealand tour.

""We're very grateful to Saracens and Gloucester with big games this week for releasing players to us," said Gatland.

"It does really make a big difference for us. It's exciting, but also a very important day for us.

"Every Lions squad goes through this organisation day. I've spoken to the most of the players, it's like the first day of school.

"Everyone's a little nervous, getting to know each other, players introducing themselves."

Scotland scrum-half Laidlaw has replaced Ben Youngs in Gatland's squad, with Leicester half-back Youngs withdrawing after brother Tom's wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Paying tribute to Youngs' decision to withdraw, Gatland insisted family must come first, then backed Laidlaw to handle the call-up.

"It was really tough for Ben, he rang me on Saturday," said Gatland.

"Obviously our thoughts to Tom and his family, in terms of we've known something's been ill for a while.

"As far as I'm concerned family comes first, he's made that decision and we know how close they are and we fully respect that decision and understand it.

"After having spoken to Ben from a selection view point it was reasonably easy.

"I rang Gregor Townsend and David Humphreys as well.

"Greig Laidlaw was someone we'd discussed initially, but the fact he'd been injured in the Six Nations was one of the reasons he probably wasn't in the original squad.

"It was obviously not ideal for him, but he's here from day one which is a bit easier than a later introduction to the squad."

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