WALES interim coach Rob Howley will cast an anxious glance across the Channel this weekend with Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins and James Hook among 15 players released for action.
Phillips will be playing for Bayonne in their Top 14 clash against Racing Metro and Jenkins for Toulon against Montpellier, while Hook has returned to Perpignan, who take on Toulouse tomorrow evening.
Prop Jenkins and scrum-half Phillips have started both Wales’s Six Nations match so far during the tournament, however Hook has largely been an observer with just seven minutes under his belt as a replacement against Ireland.
All three have to be released back to their clubs because of International Rugby Board regulations with Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), Paul James (Bath), Craig Mitchell (Exeter Chiefs) and Olly Kohn (Harlequins) having also come under the same umbrella.
It means Howley has been cautious as to who he has allowed back to the Welsh regions to play in their Pro12 fixtures.
The Scarlets had hoped that the likes of Scott Williams, Matthew Rees, Tavis Knoyle and Aaron Shingler may be allowed to return to Llanelli ahead of their crucial home match against Munster on Saturday, but they have only been given full-back Liam Williams and back-rower Josh Turnbull.
As for the Ospreys, fit-again lock Alun Wyn Jones is to get more game-time following his second-half appearance against Ulster last weekend.
Jones, who was this week officially called into Howley’s squad, will feature for the Ospreys against Connacht in Galway tomorrow, while James King has also been given clearance to play at the Sportsground. Wing Eli Walker remains sidelined with injury. The Blues, who take on Edinburgh, will have Scott Andrews, Lou Reed, Josh Navidi and Andries Pretorius in their ranks.
Reed was among the replacements for the win in Paris last Saturday, but if Jones comes through his match in Ireland unscathed, it appears certain the double Grand Slam winner will be drafted onto the bench for the round three match against Italy in Rome a week on Saturday.
The 15 players will return to the Wales camp at the Vale Hotel on Monday.
Meanwhile, British Lions head coach Warren Gatland has moved to clarify his incendiary comments published in a London newspaper.
Gatland was quoted as saying he would not overload his squad with English players because it would bring “pressures” and generate negative media during the tour.
“I am extremely disappointed that anybody should try to misinterpret what I said and try to say that will count against English players, that’s absolute b*******,” Gatland told the Daily Telegraph.
“The last thing I would ever do is limit the number of English players. There is absolutely no limit to the number of any players from any nation we will pick if they are worthy of a place on the tour. And I would happily pick 15 English players in the first Test at Brisbane if I though they were the best 15 players for the job.
“When I first started at Wales I remember I once picked 13 Ospreys for one of my early Tests in charge.”
Ironically, Gatland was observing the England squad train at the FA’s national football centre in Burton-on-Trent yesterday.