Thank God for Warren Gatland. Just when we had written off last week as a snore-fest devoid of any international action, up pops the self-proclaimed ‘Messiah’ of Welsh rugby with some puzzling comments about the danger of picking too many English players for the forthcoming British and Irish Lions tour to Australia. Those comments were made in an interview printed in the London Evening Standard on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the media storm was in full swing and Gatland found himself in a plague of locusts of his own making. In case you’ve been locked in the downstairs cupboard for the last seven days, rocking back and forth and waiting for the next round of Six Nations matches to occur, here’s what the Lions supremo said to the Standard’s Mihir Bose:
At the moment, England are playing well. They did well in the autumn, particularly the outstanding victory against the All Blacks and, if they do well in the Six Nations, there will be a reasonable contingent of English players. But that brings 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.
Oh dear Warren. I don’t know what was worst about this statement – the fact that Gatland had broken the first commandment of Lions coaching (i.e. ‘Thou must not seem biased for or against any of the home nation teams’) or the horror when I found myself agreeing with arse-chinned ex-England captain Will Carling who said:
However misquoted/misguided Gatland was, he definitely needs better PR guidance/briefing. My question is why even discuss it. Always going to be contentious however termed. A no win situation.
Carling wasn’t the only ex-England player to publically question Gatland’s motivation. Brian Moore described the comments as, “bizarre and largely unfounded”; Sir Clive Woodward said his views were, “so wide of the mark it is almost comical”; and RFU chairman Bill Beaumont defended his internationals by declaring, “English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride”. The English papers truly had the bit between their teeth, which is understandable given the less than favourable light Gatland had painted them in during that fateful interview. The furore didn’t die down until (ironically) Valentine’s Day when media outlets printed photos of Warren’s kiss-and-make-up session with the England camp. Stuart Lancaster is apparently ‘reassured’ that English players will be picked for the Lions on merit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if England fans are less than convinced.
And they’re not the only ones! Welsh, Irish and Scottish fans will now be worried that Gatland will go in the opposite direction and pick more English players than he would have done otherwise. The desire to get the English papers back on board may well result in some deserving Celtic players being left at home. I’m not suggesting that we can now expect to see Billy Twelvetrees taking Brian O’Driscoll’s shirt but those 50/50 decisions may now be made through (red) rose-tinted glasses.
It looks likely that Gatland’s misjudged ramblings will hang over Lions selection for quite a while yet, but there is some good news on the horizon in the return to Six Nations action. Gatland has always claimed that Europe’s premier tournament will go a long way to decide who will secure a seat on the plane Down Under come July, and he will breathe a sigh of relief when the focus inevitably turns towards the next set of matches. Wales will look to take the next step in their rugby rehabilitation when they travel to Rome to face an Italian side stripped of their talisman Sergio Parisse. Ireland will be looking to bounce back from a poor showing against England when they take on a Scotland side that seems to be growing in confidence. And it won’t be an easy trip for the Irish now that the Scots are relieved of all pressure, having seen the Italians off with a flourish in the last round. Speaking of difficult trips, what on earth can we expect from France as they travel to Twickenham to face an unbeaten English team? They’ve gone from tournament favourites to wooden spoon contenders in the space of two weeks (and made my final table prediction look idiotic in the process).
But seeing as though we’re in Lions mode this week, it seems like the perfect time to share my starting XV, based on the opening rounds of the Six Nations (safe in the knowledge that it won’t be half as controversial as anything said by that naughty boy from New Zealand).
15. I just can’t look past Leigh Halfpenny at full-back. He’s got plenty of competition from the likes of Alex Goode, Rob Kearney and Stuart Hogg, but for his consistency in attack and defence it’s got to be Leigh.
14. He may be as popular as a Marmite enema but Chris Ashton is an excellent finisher and potent scorer of tries. It’s this that raises him above the defensively-shaky pair of Alex Cuthbert and Craig Gilroy.
13. In BOD we trust. Whoever doubted that Brian O’Driscoll would be anything other than brilliant on his return to international rugby? His skill-set is astonishing and the Lions will need a bit of that against the Aussies. The ‘route one’ physical approach won’t be enough. O’Driscoll would also be my captain as he’s the only contender guaranteed to start at present.
12. The twelve shirt has got ‘big bruiser’ written all over it, so don’t be surprised if Manu Tuilagi gets the nod. My vote though would go to ‘2009 Man of the Series’ Jamie Roberts – the prospect of an O’Driscoll and Roberts reunion in midfield is too good to turn down.
11. After week one I may have plumped for Simon Zebo here given the flair and skill he showed against Wales. Alas, Zebo is now injured and unable to further strengthen his case for inclusion. My pick on the wing now goes to ‘The Welsh Jonah Lomu’ George North.
10. Last week’s match in Dublin was billed as a battle of the fly-halves and there was only one winner – Owen Farrell impresses me every time I see him play and gets my nod over Jonathan Sexton, who will also tour.
9. Is Mike Phillips a good scrum half? This argument seems to be a favourite amongst Welsh rugby fans. His supporters will point out his physical strength whilst his detractors will say his delivery is too slow. I think the plusses outweigh the negatives at the moment and he’d be my pick, although he’s being pushed mightily close by Ben Youngs.
8. And so we enter the back-row – the most fiercely contested part of the Lions starting XV. After week one, I would have said Jamie Heaslip would start at eight (and possibly as captain) but he had a shocker against England. Toby Faletau would get my vote as he’s an epic ball carrier and tackler.
7. A case of Warburton v Robshaw? Well no, as I’ve gone for Justin Tipuric who will prove to be a real menace to the Australians. Warburton is out of sorts at the moment and doesn’t justify a starting place whereas Robshaw is, in my opinion, played out of position – as you will now see…
6. Chris Robshaw is becoming a quality player and captain. Yet I cannot justify selecting him as captain for the Lions as there’s too much competition in the back row, not least from the soon-to-return Dan Lydiate who is a tackling machine.
5. Geoff Parling has been very impressive for England so far. He may look like a very tall garden gnome but he’s a shoo-in to start for the Lions at the moment.
4. Andrew Coombs from Wales has been the find of the tournament so far, but there’s an element of risk in picking someone so new to the international stage. My pick at lock is Richie Gray – a great player, and the only Scot in my XV.
3. This position is a straight shootout between Adam Jones and Dan Cole and (look away now Welsh fans) Cole is shading it at the moment. Adam was heavily penalised against France while Cole was dominant against the Irish.
2. Hooker seems to be a contested position for most of the home nations. Youngs vs. Hartley for England; Ford vs. Hall for Scotland; Rees vs. Owens vs. Hibbard for Wales! The only player certain to start for his country is Ireland’s Rory Best who had a belter against Wales and gets my vote.
1. I remember when using your foot at the base of the ruck was called ‘clearing’ rather than ‘unlawful play’. Cian Healey has fallen on the wrong side of this call in the last week but is still the stand-out player in this position. He’s as dangerous with the ball in hand as he is in the scrum and gets the call ahead of the likes of Joe Marler and Gethin Jenkins.
So that’s the team – six Welshman, three Irishmen, one Scot and (wait for it) FIVE Englishmen. Who said it was difficult to pick the English on merit?
The sermon has ended. Go in peace.