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16 Jan 2022, Edition - 2378, Sunday

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Warren Gatland ‘comfortable’ with game-time for Saracens’ Lions hopefuls



Warren Gatland has assured Saracens’ potential British & Irish Lions contenders that their selection prospects will not be harmed by a lack of recent top-level club rugby when he finalises his squad for the scheduled Test series against South Africa this summer.

The Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, has told Gatland the six England players in the frame for selection, including Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, have been earmarked to play in four Championship games and, should they qualify, the two-leg play-off final in June before any Lions involvement.

“I’ve spoken to Warren Gatland and he’s very comfortable with the game-time our players have had,” said McCall, whose side start their abbreviated Championship campaign at Cornish Pirates this weekend.

“Hopefully our England lads will get picked against France and Ireland and play at least four of the eight remaining league games, plus two very meaningful, competitive final games if we make the top two. They won’t play in every game but they will play enough. [If so] I think they’ll arrive on a Lions tour ready to go.”

McCall is says that talk of Saracens’ players looking “rusty” on England duty is not entirely accurate. “If Billy Vunipola is picked to play against France it’ll be his 17th game since mid-August. Owen [Farrell] was different because he was suspended during that period, and Mako Vunipola had some injuries, but the rest actually played quite a lot.”

With the Lions tour schedule and location still up in the air, Farrell’s father, Andy, is also not entirely sure about his summer plans. As yet it is similarly unclear whether Ireland will tour in July and, having worked on the past two Lions tours, Farrell is a clear candidate to join Gatland’s management team again.

“We don’t know whether there’s a Lions tour going on or whether there’s a summer tour going on with Ireland,” said Farrell. “I hear that hopefully by the end of the month we’ll know something more concrete. Like I’ve always said – and it’s the truth – I’ll always do the right thing for Irish rugby.”

Wales’s Kieran Hardy is out of contention for the Italy game next week after straining a hamstring against England last week, but Taulupe Faletau is set to play for Bath against Exeter this weekend after picking up the award for man of the match in Cardiff. Sale’s captain, Jonno Ross, will miss his side’s home game at Newcastle after being handed a one-match suspension for accumulating three yellow cards for foul play.

Tickets for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France will go on sale from 15 March, with multi-game packages available on a host city or team basis. A total of 2.6 million tickets will be available for the tournament.

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