'Unacceptable' fixture clashes must end now, says Stuart Lancaster
England coach tells 'The Independent' that New Zealand tour without key players is his toughest task so far
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, will make strong representations to the Rugby Football Union following next month's tour of New Zealand in an effort to ensure that future trips to the southern hemisphere are not undermined by catastrophic fixture scheduling.
Lancaster described the current situation as "unacceptable", revealing that he had raised the issue personally with leading figures in the All Black management but had not succeeded in securing an agreement that would enable him to pick his strongest side for the opening Test in Auckland.
"I absolutely intend to do my best to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Independent. "As much as I've tried to influence matters for this summer's tour, the obstacles were too great. Because of the scheduling, this is without doubt the most difficult situation I've faced since taking on the England job. I believe it's in everyone's interests that teams are given the best chance of competing effectively in these high-profile games. To have Test nations touring without their best players… it's unacceptable, really."
By fixing the Eden Park Test for 7 June, just a week after the Premiership final in England, the International Rugby Board's schedulers guaranteed that England would be forced to field an under-strength team in that match. Lancaster spoke to senior officials in the New Zealand union, including the chief executive Steve Tew, when he visited the country last August, but was told there was no solution.
"It's a problem I've in-herited," Lancaster said. "When I was appointed head coach on an interim basis, I was too busy dealing with the here and now and stabilising the ship to look too far ahead. When I was given the job on a permanent basis in 2012 and I started looking at the extended programme and mapping out the key dates, I realised immediately that the fixture list for this tour wasn't going to work for us. It's far from ideal, but it's above a coach's head. These things are decided years in advance and television schedules are built around the agreed dates."
England will not tour south of the Equator next summer because of the World Cup later in the year, but they are due to visit Australia for a full Test series in June 2016. As the domestic club season is unlikely to be shortened in the foreseeable future, there is every likelihood that the Premiership final at Twickenham will again be played on the last Saturday in May. Any move by the Wallabies to play England the following weekend will be fiercely resisted by the RFU, if Lancaster has his way.
On Thursday, the head coach will name a relatively small advance group of players for England's summer programme, which begins with a game against the Barbarians at Twickenham on 1 June. Danny Cipriani, the Sale outside-half whose representative career went into free fall following a difficult autumn series in 2008, is likely to be called up, as are the Worcester full-back Chris Pennell, outstanding in adversity this season, and two Exeter youngsters, the midfielder Henry Slade and the brilliant front-row prospect Luke Cowan-Dickie. Some of those in this initial squad, drawn from clubs whose 2013-14 business is at an end, may make it onto the flight to New Zealand.
The main body of the tour party will be named in batches over the next 10 days or so. "I won't know what cards I've been dealt for the Auckland Test until we find out which clubs are involved in the Premiership final," Lancaster said. "Things will be clearer after this weekend's semi-finals.
"For all the problems we're facing, there's some positive news. The chance to discover more about a new group of players is definitely an upside: we want to work with youngsters like Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, and they've shown through their performances at club level that they deserve to work with us. Also, there has been no suggestion of burn-out or fatigue amongst those already in the senior England squad. They've been well looked after at their clubs, they all want to tour and they're peaking for the big matches ahead."
Tough calls: Lancaster's three areas of concern
With the Gloucester midfielder Billy Twelvetrees on the injury list and one of Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell missing the first Test because of the Premiership final, there is an obvious problem – one that will be exacerbated if Saracens get to Twickenham, because that would also remove Brad Barritt from the equation.
Lancaster has already decided not to take Northampton's Alex Corbisiero, injured for most of the season. If Mako Vunipola of Saracens is not involved in the Premiership final, Joe Marler of Harlequins will be.
Tom Youngs is staying home on compassionate grounds while Rob Webber and David Paice are injured. Much depends on Northampton's Dylan Hartley shaking off a shoulder problem in time.
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