British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland says that he will field an entire side of English players in the first Test against Australia if it is the best team he has available.
The New Zealand-born coach claimed on Tuesday that a large number of English players in the 37-strong Lions squad would generate extra pressure on the touring party and attract negative attention. However, the 49-year-old yesterday tried to distance himself from the statements made to the Evening Standard, which referenced England’s doomed Rugby World Cup campaign in New Zealand which was dogged by off-field controversy.
Gatland said yesterday: “I am extremely disappointed that anybody should try to misinterpret what I said and try to say that will count against English players, that’s absolute b*******.
“The last thing I would ever do is limit the number of English players. There is absolutely no limit to the number of any players from any nation we will pick if they are worthy of a place on the tour. I would happily pick 15 English players in the first Test at Brisbane if I thought they were the best 15 players for the job.
“The only consideration for a Lions coach is to get the best 15 on the park to do the job. That’s paramount, I’m not remotely bothered which country they come from. When I first started at Wales I remember I once picked 13 Ospreys for one of my early Tests in charge.”
Gatland had said in the interview with the Evening Standard that “the best players will be selected”, but “it’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise”. He then cited the “circus” created around England during the World Cup and his concern that the same thing could happen again, or worse still, players could be the target of media stings or set-ups.
Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont responded to Gatland’s comments on Tuesday by reinforcing the changes made by new England coach Stuart Lancaster following Martin Johnson’s controversial period in charge. “English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride,” Beaumont said. “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.”