British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland believes picking too many English players for this year’s Australia tour could cause problems because of the extra media focus and their unpopularity among other nations.
The New Zealander, who won the Six Nations grand slam with Wales last year, takes charge of the combined side for the first time for the three-test tour and has been impressed by England in their last three matches.
“At the moment, England are playing well. They did well in the autumn and, if they do well in the Six Nations, there will be a reasonable contingent of English players,” said Gatland. “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.
“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.”
England lost to France in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals after a tournament marred by tabloid stories of drinking, partying and dwarf-throwing, while centre Manu Tuilagi jumped off a ferry as a joke. “It’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise,” Gatland added. “We all know what happened with England at the World Cup. I’ve just got to be aware of the possibilities that, if there are 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.”
There was also further potential bad news for Samoa-born Tuilagi, with Gatland saying his coaching team have discussed whether players born outside Britain and Ireland understand the magnitude of pulling on a Lions shirt. “That’s a really interesting question. It’s something that we’ve touched on. These are the sort of things that come into consideration when you finally select the squad,” Gatland said.
Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont responded to Gatland’s comments by reminding the New Zealander of England’s association with the Lions. “English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride,” Beaumont said. “I was lucky enough to be captain in 1980, Martin Johnson skippered the team to the famous 1997 series win, as well as leading the side for a historic second time, when going down to Australia. 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.”