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Lions arrange ‘home’ clash with Japan but can’t get English clubs to play ball

Lions' chiefs have voiced hope that England’s top clubs will change their minds and release players for the first ‘home’ Test since 2005.

Warren Gatland’s team play Japan at Murrayfield a week before the eight-match tour kicks off in South Africa.

The game, on June 26, falls outside the official international window and Premiership Rugby says it won’t let any players from the league take part.

But the only competing attraction is the Premiership Final, also that day, which leaves 10 of the top flight’s 12 clubs, plus relegated Saracens, without a game.

Lions managing director Ben Calveley said the fixture provided the tourists with vital game time together which would improve their chances of beating the world champions.

He revealed that interest in the tour is “off the scale, considerably higher than we have seen for previous tours”, but said: “Our understanding is there is no agreement to release English players for the fixture against Japan.

“We would of course be hopeful those players not playing in the final would be available for this match – but that would require a change to the position as it currently stands."

Calveley remains “optimistic” the tour will go ahead and that numbers in excess of the 35,000 that have followed previous Lions parties will be able to travel despite the current pandemic.

He said: “Of the three ways you can get tickets for this tour the ticket-only ballot is oversubscribed incredibly heavily while the level of interest in our travel packages is approximately five times higher than on previous tours.”

Only twice before have the Lions hosted a Test match on ‘home’ soil and not since Sir Clive Woodward’s 2005 team played Argentina in Cardiff. Prior to that there was a 1986 clash against a Rest of the World XV.

“We saw Japan play some excellent rugby during the World Cup and they will come to Edinburgh fully-motivated to win,” said Gatland.

“They are a talented side who play high-tempo rugby, so it’ll be a good challenge for us ahead of the tour, and a chance for the match day squad to put their hands up for Test selection.”

Japan boss Jamie Joseph hailed it as “truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for his players, adding: “We can't wait.”

The Lions’ eight-game tour kicks off in Cape Town on July 3 against the Stormers. Just three weeks later the Test series begins in Johannesburg.

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