CHRIS ASHTON is adamant that England’s players have “learnt the lessons” of their ill-fated World Cup campaign in New Zealand in 2011, insisting that while mistakes have been made in the past Lions head coach Warren Gatland will have no trouble from the English contingent during this summer’s tour to Australia.
Gatland had expressed misgivings about the spotlight on England players, notably the ‘circus’ that accompanied Martin Johnson’s squad in New Zealand two years ago. Ashton, who drew his share of critical press on that tour, acknowledged on Thursday that there was a time when Gatland’s observations had some currency.
“Yes, definitely, from stuff that went on I can understand why people might think that [about English players] but it’s completely different here now,” he said. “The people who were around then have learnt their lessons from that and the people who weren’t there know the consequences if you get involved or caught out in the way we did, so I don’t think there’ll ever be a repeat. At the time, it was a mistake, one we didn’t intend to happen.
“We didn’t do it on purpose but sometimes it takes mistakes like that for you to learn and luckily the guys who have come into the squad have seen those mistakes we made.
"I won’t be getting caught out again like I was last time. We’re here to play rugby, to be on the back pages, not the front pages. That’s how it’s been since Stuart took over.”
There is little doubt that there has been an ethical makeover on Lancaster’s watch, which Gatland has acknowledged numerous times.
The New Zealander has been caught in an unintended firestorm, with comments relating to the media frenzy that descended upon England at the World Cup extrapolated to mean that he would be wary of taking too big a contingent of England players. He did not say that, nor mean that, but the perception is out there nonetheless.
In any case, Lancaster backed his players on Thursday night to uphold the best traditions of the Lions. England’s head coach met with Gatland on Tuesday evening in a pre-planned get-together at St George’s Park where England wrapped up a three day training camp on Thursday.
“I would be 100 per cent confident in our players because when I watch them interact, not just within their own group but with members of the public and rugby supporters, hotel staff or whoever it is, I never see something that I think is inappropriate behaviour,” said Lancaster. “The message I give the players is that as an international player, whoever you meet you show them respect and you should expect it to earn it from everyone else, so you’ve got to earn it but you should always show it.”
Lancaster rejected the notion that the meeting on Tuesday night had been awkward or that there was a circus following in the train of anything English. Gatland did not address the England players directly – Lancaster did himself on Wednesday morning – but he asserted his often-stated policy that he would pick on form, not reputation, playing or otherwise.
“Warren assured me that selection would be based on merit alone,” Lancaster said. “When I took over 12 months ago there were a lot of comments and questions about discipline and behaviour. If you can keep a line of travel that’s positive for a long enough time, then ultimately people will stop going back to the past and concentrate on the future. That’s starting to happen now. Now it’s about performance and winning rugby matches.
“I’ve no concerns about the players whatsoever. These things are part of the dynamic of being an England coach. What’s happened in the past doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen in the future. All I ask is that we be judged on the here and now.”
Gatland insists that is what he has always pledged to do. He is enraged by the manner in which he feels he has been misrepresented.
“The England camp is friendly, open, disciplined and courteous,” he said yesterday. “The fact that my visit coincided with the furore over my comments that were about wanting to protect English players in the Lions from external forces made it all the more apt. I was blown away by the desire to be part of the Lions experience. In many ways the media overreaction merely served to highlight the negativity I am seeking to guard against. For the record, the best players will be selected.”
Lancaster would not be drawn on how many players he thought England might eventually have in the 35-37-man squad to be named on April 30. He has the rather more pressing matter of preparing to take on France at Twickenham a week tomorrow.
Eight players, largely those on bench duty for England over the opening two rounds, will play for their clubs this weekend. No8 Ben Morgan, fly-half Freddie Burns and prop Alex Corbisiero, are all still ruled out through injury. England gather at Pennyhill Park on Sunday night.