Warren Gatland namechecks star Irish duo as players who have caught his eye ahead of Lions tour
As befits a combative former New Zealand hooker, Warren Gatland has always been drawn to the fray. So when he talks of his relish at seeing England obliged to stand tall against all-comers in the 2017 Six Nations championship you know that his enthusiasm is genuine.
In a Lions year, a Kiwi with deep-seated Welsh connections rooting for a powerful English performance as they look to defend their Grand Slam title is part of the enduring appeal of this four-yearly sporting odyssey.
It throws together unlikely bedfellows, forges seemingly conflicting alliances, and on the eve of the championship it is in keeping with such contrived affiliations that the Lions coach should want England to be a focal point of his watching brief.
In Gatland's eyes, a dominant England is good news for the Lions' prospects in New Zealand in six months' time.
"Absolutely," said Gatland. "The best thing is to have a strong England for the simple reason that all the other countries will be gunning for them, looking to knock them over, and so England will have to cope with that as well deal with the pressure of expectation that is on them as Grand Slam champions and on this long run of successive wins.
"A Lions tour is about pressure, of all sorts, and particular in the Test series, finding a way to come out on top. You've got a couple of shots at it in the Tests and that's it. All over. Four more years until the next crack.
"So, for England, can they do it? Can they win another Grand Slam? Can they go and break the All Blacks' record for most Test wins in a row [18, with England currently on 14]?
"The players from the other countries will be absolutely up for it, busting a gut to put one over on England because the rewards for doing so are going to be massive, in the tournament itself and potentially for the Lions selection.
"I want to see how they go at England and how England respond. I want pressure to bring the out of them all. I want those players to front up. I want the English players to front up. And if they do come through it all, yes, that is good for the Lions."
Gatland admits to being more upbeat about the Lions' chances in New Zealand than he was at this stage four years ago when he was running the rule over what he had in front of him as he plotted the Lions' strategy to take on the Wallabies in Australia.
As it was, the final game of the 2013 Six Nations between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium turned into a selection decider, Wales smashing Stuart Lancaster's side, 30-3, ruining the tour chances of many in the process, notably England captain Chris Robshaw. Not surprisingly the tour party had a Welsh hue to it. Yet some of those self-same players, such as Lions captain Sam Warburton, centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, have yet to hit those heights.
"There are a lot of guys from 2013 still playing but if they are to be selected for 2017, their form is going to have to improve," said Gatland. "There are a lot of things up in the air and there is a lot of exciting talent about."
Gatland name-checks Irish duo, centres Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose, as players who have caught his eye, understandably so given that the Lions coach was in Chicago in November to witness Ireland's dramatic win over the All Blacks.
England lock Maro Itoje also crops up in conversation, as do a raft of others. Gatland has some 70-80 players on his radar and will have to whittle that down to 35-37 by mid-April when the touring party is announced.
"I'm really upbeat as to the squad we will take," said Gatland. "We have so many choices. We're looking for various elements: X-factor, because that is what the All Blacks have got but we've got those players, too, Stuart Hogg in Scotland, for example. We've got a range of things. We are going to have some size, some physicality, some footwork, some pace, skill, experience - it's all there. We can match the All Blacks in that regard."
There is much to be decided in the coming weeks, the captaincy included. Gatland professes an open mind. "Is it someone who has been a Lion already (Alun Wyn Jones or Rory Best qualify on that basis) or someone who has done a good job in this Six Nations?" muses Gatland. "And yes, if Dylan Hartley leads England to another Grand Slam that could sway it.
"Dylan has done a great job with his leadership with England. The sending-off (for Northampton) looked like frustration to me. But Dylan has to contend with pressure, too, that of Jamie George pushing for his place. As for Sam (Warburton), he's got to get selected for Wales first and foremost. The captain has to be sure of his place. If he is not, then we will be ruthless and drop him. "
Gatland has just returned from his native New Zealand and is savouring the interest expressed in the Lions the length and breadth of the country.
There was plenty of media speculation, too, that Gatland's son, Bryn, a fly-half in the Auckland Blues development squad, might be selected in the Provincial Union XV for the opening game of the tour. Dad has promised to send his big men down his channel.
The former Waikato hooker and All Blacks' back-up to Sean Fitzpatrick has a high profile in his homeland, and found himself drawn as a clown on the front page of the 'New Zealand Herald' after he rebuked the paper for depicting Wallaby coach, Michael Cheika, in such terms.
But he knows the terrain better than any. The 2017 Lions, with the competitive riches of a Six Nations to fortify their ranks, will want for nothing.
Warren Gatland was speaking on behalf of Standard Life Investments, principal partner of the Lions and jersey sponsor of the 2017 tour to New Zealand
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