Sport

Harlequins baffled after Marcus Smith is forced to miss Saracens match

Harlequins are frustrated at being unable to select Marcus Smith for Saturday’s match against Saracens, who have been cleared to pick five England internationals including Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola.

All England players who toured Australia over the summer are mandated to 10 weeks off as part of player welfare protocols, meaning they should have been rested for the first two weekends of the season. Clubs can apply for special dispensation, however, as was the case with Bristol and Ellis Genge last weekend, and Saracens seem to have been successful in gaining permission for Farrell, Itoje, Jamie George and both Vunipola brothers to play at the Stoop.

Harlequins saw their request for Smith to return a week early rejected and hinted at their annoyance in the press release announcing their team. “Unfortunately Marcus Smith was not given clearance to play this week and will continue his mandated rest period following England’s summer internationals,” it read. It is understood that in response to their request, Harlequins were simply referred to the regulations.

Each application is lodged with the professional performance management group, which is made up of representatives from the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association. Eddie Jones is believed to also have a say.

Each case is handled individually and players who had little-to-no game time in Australia are more likely to be allowed to return early. On that basis Quins have selected Joe Marchant and Jack Walker in their squad while players who missed large chunks of last season through injury, such as Farrell or Jack Nowell, who appeared for Exeter last weekend, are also more likely to be approved.

There appear to be inconsistencies in the decision to block Smith from playing on Saturday but allow Billy Vunipola to feature, however, given the No 8 played more matches and minutes for club and country last season. Both players started all three Tests against Australia – as did Farrell and George. Itoje missed the last Test because of a concussion.

The inconsistent approach has been criticised by the player welfare lobby group Progressive Rugby and is causing confusion in a season when, as revealed by the Guardian in May, England players are set to miss about half their club’s Premiership matches if the rest protocols are fully adhered to.

Earlier this week the Exeter director of rugby, Rob Baxter, voiced his frustrations at a system that now seems to make it disadvantageous for clubs to have frontline England players in their squads. “One thing that’s becoming clear, and there isn’t a director of rugby in the country who won’t say this, the amount of Premiership Rugby games that clash with internationals, or international rest periods, is too much,” he said.

“It feels odd that we’ve allowed a system in this country [where it] has actually become quite difficult to have internationals, especially England players. To me it becomes odd when you have a system where the clubs that provide the England players, it feels bad, difficult, to have too many. It feels difficult to be a real supporter of the England team. That is a bit of an odd system.”

The issue of player release and how many club matches England players are absent for is set to form a key part of the negotiations for the new professional game agreement between the Premiership and the RFU, which comes into play in 2024. Earlier this year, after England flopped during the Six Nations for the second year in a row, the RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, hinted at significant changes to the system when saying: “Everyone is fed up with it. We need to fix it.”