Thursday 26 April 2018

I understand clubs' anger over squad meeting - Gatland

Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony walk out for a Lions photoshoot at yesterday’s gathering in London. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire.
Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony walk out for a Lions photoshoot at yesterday’s gathering in London. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire.

Gavin Mairs

As the Lions squad gathered for the first time yesterday, Warren Gatland found himself forced to defend his omission of England full-back Mike Brown and the decision to hold the get-together just five days before the Champions Cup final.

Mark McCall, director of rugby at Saracens, who face Clermont Auvergne at Murrayfield on Saturday, said it was "unbelievable" the event was so close to the biggest game of their season. Saracens, who have six players in the Lions squad - Owen Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers - have had to adjust their training week.

Gloucester, who play Stade Français in the Challenge Cup final on Friday, were also affected, with Ross Moriarty and Greig Laidlaw, the replacement for Ben Youngs, in the Lions party.

Eight years ago, Northampton refused to release prop Euan Murray in similar circumstances. Gatland insisted, however, that information of the date had been communicated to the home unions well in advance.

"I've got to understand where they are coming from, having been involved in the situation, and I understand Mark's reasoning as well," Gatland said. "If it had been last week it would have potentially affected 22 clubs. I understand it's a massive week for them. But Mondays tend to be a recovery day.

"This date has been communicated months and months and months ago… and we haven't had any requests from anyone to move this date."

As for the omission of Brown, Gatland said he would be happy to speak to the Harlequins full-back. Brown had said he was "gutted" by the decision - highlighting his form since 2015. Brown added that he had been disappointed that he had not received any feedback on whether he was on the Lions standby list.

"I spoke to Graham Rowntree (Harlequins and Lions forwards coach), who said he spoke to Mike," Gatland added. "I can understand the frustration and the disappointment. I am more than happy for him to give me a call if he feels he's been hard done by.

"There are a number of players in the same situation."

Gatland reported a "clean bill of health" in terms of injuries, with captain Sam Warburton (knee) and Alun Wyn Jones (shoulder) both fit ,and dismissed concerns about Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar.

The Lions head coach spoke of the "really tough" decision taken by Youngs, who pulled out of the tour on Saturday after his brother Tom's wife learnt she had terminal cancer.

He said: "Our thoughts go to Tom and his family. As far as I'm concerned family comes first; we know how close they are and we fully respect that decision."

Gatland said it had been a straightforward decision to bring in Gloucester scrum-half Laidlaw, which increases the Scotland representation to three.

"Greig was someone we'd discussed initially, but the fact he'd been injured in the Six Nations was one of the reasons he probably wasn't in the original squad," Gatland added.

Fitness

Now approaching 100pc fitness, Laidlaw said he was targeting the starting Test shirt.

The players received 36 pieces of kit yesterday, as well as formal wear, and had their official tour photograph taken ahead of being addressed by Gatland at their first squad meeting.

Gatland said he would be "congratulating them, speaking about family and any issues, some of the expectations on tour, some behaviour stuff, being aware of dealing with the media, potential issues that may arise and understanding New Zealand culturally".

"There are a lot of people who haven't been to New Zealand," he said. "That is a different experience for a player. It wasn't until I left there that I realised how tough a country it is to go to on tour and players can find that experience daunting."

Proper preparations will begin next week, when 14 players not involved in club semi-finals will assemble in Wales for a training camp before another get-together in Dublin. First, though, Gatland must fly to Japan for tomorrow's 2019 World Cup draw in his capacity as Wales coach.

And is he keen to avoid drawing England again? "From a Welsh point of view, I don't think you're too worried about who you end up in your group with," he said with a smile.

"Probably the team you don't want to get is the All Blacks, and then everyone else, you wouldn't mind." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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