British & Irish Lions 2013
Clubs may be forced to release Lions players
ESPN Staff
September 10, 2012
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland fields questions from the media, Ironmonger's Hall, London, September 4, 2012
Lions boss Warren Gatland appears to face a fight to pull his squad together ahead of their departure for Australia next year © Getty Images

The British & Irish Lions may be able to force French clubs to release players for next year's tour to Australia.

A selection headache for Lions head coach Warren Gatland appeared to be looming with the culmination of the Top 14 season in France set to clash with the first game of the tour against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1.

A host of potential tourists currently ply their trade in France including former Lions Gethin Jenkins, James Hook, Mike Phillips and Jonny Wilkinson but early signs suggest that their Top 14 clubs will not grant a release despite International Rugby Board regulations demanding that they do so.

Toulon have repeatedly stated that they will not release their players should they earn the chance to contest the Bouclier de Brennus on the same day the Lions are due to meet the Baa Baas in an historic clash at Hong Kong Stadium. However, it appears that the British & Irish Lions Committee may be able to call on the sport's governing body to ensure they travel with their chosen squad.

Regulation 9.6b states: "The quadrennial British and Irish Lions Tour is a Designated Event and all Players selected to participate shall be released. The Release Period shall ordinarily commence on 1 June and ordinarily conclude on the 2nd weekend of July in the relevant year."

Gatland went to France last week to visit some of his players and provisionally sound out clubs about possible release for both Wales and Lions duty but will not have been happy with the reply he received from Toulon coach Bernard Laporte. "We discussed the availability of Gethin Jenkins," he told L'Equipe. "We said again that we would not release him to leave with the Lions on 27 May if we are in the [Top 14] final. He understood. I think he already knew when he came to the meeting."

Gatland's preparations for the Lions first visit to Australia since 2001 are also set to be hampered by the culmination of the UK domestic season with the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect PRO12 finals taking place two days before the squad's planned departure.

However, the players contesting those titles will be able to link up with the Lions following those matches and well before June 1 having taken part in a preliminary training camp in May.

Gatland's problems appear to extend beyond the possible formation of his Lions squad with release issues also set to impact on his role as Wales coach. His assistant Rob Howley is set to take charge of the side for the opening end of year internationals against Samoa and Argentina, and next year's Six Nations, but Gatland will return to the helm for the games against New Zealand and Australia.

The latter of those games falls outside the IRB international window and Laporte is once again determined to hold onto his players - this time with the IRB regulations on his side. "On 1 December, the Welsh play a Test against Australia outside of the window," he said, "and we told them that the position of principle was the same as for the Lions tour: 'No'."

Other France-based UK players include Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), Max Evans (Castres), Delon Armitage (Toulon), Euan Murray (Agen), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Nathan Hines (Clermont Auvergne), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Andrew Sheridan (Toulon), Simon Shaw (Toulon) and Mike Blair (Brive).

An IRB spokesman told BBC Sport on Monday: "The respective Unions are familiar with the policy regarding player release for the British and Irish Lions as outlined within IRB Regulation 9."

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