Wales players could enjoy a selection advantage over their English rivals for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
The Lions have today (Tuesday) announced their itinerary for the eight-match tour, which shows just a week between the scheduled final of the English Premiership on June 26 and the first match of the tour on July 3.
Welsh players who play in the Guinness Pro 14 – the vast majority of the national squad – will have a two-break between their final on June 19 and the first game for the Lions against the Stormers in Cape Town.
Gatland wants to play a warm-up match at home against the Barbarians on June 26, but as it stands, only Welsh Scots and Irish players from the Pro 14 will be available.
Gatland said recently: “They (the Premiership) have said they are not moving their final which I find very disappointing.”
The Lions could make history with Gatland’s side set to play in front of the largest-ever crowd for a Lions Test in the professional era.
The tour will consist of five matches against domestic opponents before culminating in three Test matches against the newly-crowned world champions, the Springboks.
FNB Stadium in Johannesburg will host the first Test on Saturday 24 July and with a capacity of approximately 88,000 spectators, a sell-out crowd would be higher than the 84,188 who witnessed the series decider against the Wallabies in 2001.
The second Test follows a week later at the Cape Town Stadium – the first Lions Test in the Mother City since 1997 – before the British tourists return to Gauteng for the final Test on Saturday 7 August at Emirates Airline Park.
The combined capacity for the three Test venues is just below 205,000, which could make the three Tests on the 2021 tour the best-attended since professionalism, potentially surpassing the 192,972 people who attended the three Tests in Australia in 2013.
The eight-game schedule includes six weekend fixtures; three against Vodacom Super Rugby teams the Vodacom Bulls, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers, and two midweek fixtures against an invitational side in Port Elizabeth and South Africa ‘A’ in Nelspruit.
Gatland said: “Touring South Africa is always a huge challenge, not only from a rugby perspective, but also in terms of the venues and the conditions facing the players.
“We are very comfortable that three of the games, two of which are Test matches, will be played at altitude. Our schedule falls in a way to allow us to start at sea level before building up and acclimatising to the unique environment that playing at altitude presents.
“Ensuring the team are absolutely primed for the Test matches is a critical element of any Lions Tour, and I am confident the quality of opposition we will face in the opening weeks will get us ready to take on the Springboks. The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers are all tough sides and present different challenges, which is exactly what we want.
“Moreover, the venues we have agreed – some of which will be new to the Lions – open up the matches to a vast audience and will undoubtedly provide an unforgettable experience for the players and travelling supporters alike.
“We are very much looking forward to touring this wonderful country.”
Rassie Erasmus, South Africa director of rugby, said the tour was a once-in-a-lifetime playing opportunity for South African players.
“There are players who have been to three World Cups and finished their careers with a winner’s medal yet never got to play against the Lions,” said Erasmus.
“They only come around every 12 years for our players and only a few of them ever have the privilege of wearing the Springbok jersey in a Lions series.
“The Lions have not lost a series since they were last here a decade ago and they will present a next-level challenge in 18 months’ time.
“Warren Gatland is a massively experienced and astute coach with a phenomenal record with the Lions and the rugby experience for our players and public will rival that of a Rugby World Cup.
“The Lions performed extremely well on their previous two tours [in Australia and New Zealand] and will no doubt relish the opportunity to add the Springboks’ scalp to their belt.
“They will operate like a well-oiled machine and we will have to work very hard to match them in every department, on and off the field.”
Full 2021 tour schedule:
- Saturday 3 July: British & Irish Lions v DHL Stormers – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
- Wednesday 7 July: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘Invitational’ – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
- Saturday 10 July: British & Irish Lions v Cell C Sharks – Jonsson Kings Park, Durban
- Wednesday 13 July: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘A’ Team – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
- Saturday 17 July: British & Irish Lions v Vodacom Bulls – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
- Saturday 24 July (first Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
- Saturday 31 July (second Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
- Saturday 7 August (third Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg