Warren Gatland has caused a stir by saying that picking a large number of English players for the Lions tour to Australia would bring “pressures” on the squad and could mean they would targeted by overseas media.
He said that England were “not the most popular” nation abroad.
The Lions head coach moved last night to dampen the furore generated by his comments, insisting that he would “happily select 15 English players for the first Test in Brisbane” if it was the Lions’ best team.
But he did not distance himself from his earlier description of the 'circus’ that accompanied England during the 2011 World Cup, or the potential problems of selecting an England-dominated tour party, a distinct possibility given the fine start made by Stuart Lancaster’s side in the Six Nations.
Gatland believes that England and English players are particularly targeted by the overseas media for their on and off-the-field behaviour. This wasvery much the case in New Zealand two years ago when “dwarf throwing” and England’s extra-curricular activities rapidly dominated the news agenda, much to the detriment of their rugby.
He conceded in the Evening Standard that it already looked like there would be a “reasonable England contingent” but added that it brought “a certain element of – how do I say it – other pressures that come with selecting a lot of English players. It becomes a much greater media focus from the English papers; potentially a negative focus from the Australian papers.
“And English players are targeted by other countries. They are not always the most popular with other countries because of the history. People like having a pop at them. It’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise. We all know what happened with England at the World Cup and the circus that was created. I’ve just got to be aware of the possibilities that, if there are a number of English players on the tour, the same sort of things could be instigated, through stings through the media or set-ups trying to create controversy.”
Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont, who captained the Lions in 1980, assured Gatland last night that he would have nothing to worry about from any England players. “Wearing the Lions shirt, whether captain or player, is something that all English players take very seriously. This will undoubtedly continue for those that get picked this time. It is well documented the strong culture and sense of responsibility on and off the pitch that this England team possesses. Those fortunate enough to get picked will, of course, take those attributes down under.”
England have dominated two of the most recent Lions tours. Martin Johnson captained a tour party to Australia in 2001 that included 18 English players, a figure that rose to 20 through injury, while the 2005 squad coached by Sir Clive Woodward – whose presence was like a red rag to a bull to the local press – contained 21 selections, which rose to 23. On the 2009 tour, the least controversial and acrimonious recent Lions tour, there just eight England players were selected.
Gatland, a New Zealander, furiously rejected suggestions that nationality would sway his selection of either the 37-strong tour party or his starting XV for the three Tests.
“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 said. “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.
“The only consideration for a Lions coach is to get the best 15 on the park to do the job. That’s paramount, I’m not remotely bothered which country they come from. When I first started at Wales I remember I once picked 13 Ospreys for one of my early Tests in charge.
“Hand on heart I would never be able to look myself in the mirror if we didn’t pick a player who deserved to go on Tour because he was English. I just couldn’t do that to any individual. Morally it is just wrong.
“I have been hugely impressed with the professionalism of the England boys under Stuart Lancaster and the way they conduct themselves on and off the pitch, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that certain other pressures come into play. I think we are all aware there are certain outlets who at some stage will try and wind up the English.
“I thought I was only really stating the obvious, what everybody has known from the past.”
By Brendan Gallagher, Telegraph.co.uk