Talks are under way to try to avert a fixture clash that could force a number of leading players to miss the opening game of the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
SportingLife reports that the Lions announced their 10-match schedule on Thursday and confirmed three Tests against the world champions, to be played in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The opening fixture of the tour, against a Highveld XV in Rustenburg, is scheduled for the same weekend as the 2009 Guinness Premiership final.
Under International Rugby Board regulations, clubs are not obliged to release players for non-international matches.
And with the Lions’ second fixture against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg only four days later, any players involved in the Premiership final would probably miss the first two matches of the tour.
The matter was discussed at Thursday’s preliminary meeting of the new Professional Game Board, the body that will officially take over the running of elite rugby in England from July 1.
The board is made up of representatives from the Rugby Football Union and clubs’ organisation Premier Rugby, both of whom are said to be “working hard with the Lions and other parties to find a solution”.
The task of re-structuring an already packed schedule next season is not simple and would almost certainly rely on the clubs agreeing to play on more international weekends.
This season, there were no Premiership matches scheduled on the first two weekends of the RBS 6 Nations championship.
If a solution is not found, the Lions could conceivably find themselves starting the tour without key players and senior members of the management staff.
Wasps director of rugby Ian McGeechan and head coach Shaun Edwards are strong favourites to be invited to lead the tour party – and recent history suggests they could well be involved in the Premiership final.
Wasps have played in, and won, three of the Grand Finals since the Premiership play-off system began and are still in the hunt for this year’s title.
As well as McGeechan and Edwards, Wasps boast potential Lions in the shape of Danny Cipriani, Eoin Reddan, James Haskell, Tom Rees, Paul Sackey, Josh Lewsey and Simon Shaw.
The majority of clubs in the hunt for this year’s title, particularly Leicester, Gloucester, Bath, Sale and Harlequins, would expect to provide players to the Lions.
There was a precedent in 2005, when Gareth Thomas missed the first two fixtures of the Lions tour of New Zealand because Toulouse reached the French league final.
Although the RFU and Premier Rugby are working to find a solution, questions have been asked in club circles as to why the Lions scheduled their tour to begin on May 30 when the Premiership dates have been in the diary for years.
Additionally, the IRB conference held in Woking after the World Cup last year confirmed May 31 to be the cut-off point for club rugby in the northern hemisphere.
However, if the Lions moved their tour any later in the summer it would eat into the 10-week rest period laid out in the new RFU-Premier Rugby agreement.
The Lions return to South Africa for the first time since their 2-1 series victory under McGeechan in 1997. As on that occasion, the Springboks are once again reigning world champions.
The Lions will play in seven cities but there will not be a Test in Cape Town. Instead, Newlands will stage tour fixtures with Western Province and the Emerging Springboks.
Lions chairman Andy Irvine said: “We are looking forward to touring such a wonderful country and playing the world champions on their own turf.
“The tour itself promises be full of challenges in a country where rugby is a real passion, but I am confident the 2009 Lions will acquit themselves well.
“We are expecting tens of thousands of Lions fans to travel to South Africa in 2009, and we are certain that every one of them will come back with amazing memories.”
The Lions, meanwhile, hope to announce their head coach for the tour by the middle of next month.
May 30, Highveld XV (Rustenburg)
June 3, Golden Lions (Johannesburg)
June 6, Cheetahs (Bloemfontein)
June 10, Sharks (Durban)
June 13, Western Province (Cape Town)
June 16/17 tbc, Coastal XV tbc (Port Elizabeth tbc)
June 20, South Africa (Durban)
June 23, Emerging Springboks (Cape Town)
June 27, South Africa (Pretoria)
July 4, South Africa (Johannesburg).