French clubs set to play tough over Lions players
WARREN Gatland is facing tough negotiations in France after Toulon boss Bernard Laporte fired out an uncompromising warning over Gethin Jenkins.
Gatland was scheduled for discussions with several Top 14 clubs over the release of players for the Lions tour of Australia next summer.
A number of leading candidates for the tour are employed by French clubs but there is a potential clash with the Top 14 final taking place on June 1, the same day as the Lions open their trip with a date against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
Gatland made clear after his appointment as Lions coach this week that he wants the whole squad to depart together on May 27, with injury replacements the only permitted late arrivals.
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Whether he gets his way is another matter. Front-line Welsh players operating in France included Jenkins at Toulon, Mike Phillips at Bayonne, James Hook and Luke Charteris at Perpignan and Lee Byrne at Clermont Auvergne, and some could be involved in the French showpiece.
The New Zealander will want to speak with all concerned, as well as their employers, but Toulon coach Laporte has served notice that the road ahead may not be a smooth one.
Laporte told L'Equipe: "The international window begins on the weekend of June 9. Everything that happens before that is outside of the window. As far as freeing up Gethin, in principle, it's a no. If he plays in the final, he will leave the day after, on Sunday, June 2, but not before.
"We won't pay a player who has to go and play for the Lions at the most important time of our season. There is no specific clause in his contract about it."
Jenkins is world class and would be a strong contender to start in the Tests Down Under, along with Phillips, who began all three Tests against South Africa in 2009. Were those two to miss out on the trip for whatever reason, the tourists' chances of victory would be hugely affected.
Other British players at Toulon include Steffon and Delon Armitage, Andrew Sheridan, Simon Shaw and Jonny Wilkinson.
The row is set to run unless Gatland can use his negotiating skills to soften the French stance.
Derwyn Jones, agent for Hook and Luke Charteris, said: "Warren will have to do what he can to defuse opposition within the French clubs. He is not dealing with a governing body. He is dealing with several different clubs and individuals within those clubs. There's a fair chance some will be accommodating, but Laporte's quotes suggest to me he is acting as a mouthpiece for the club owner Mourad Boudjellal.
"It will be a test of Warren's negotiating skill."