Head coach warns that ‘circus’ surrounding Red Rose squad could limit his thinking regarding which men he will take Down Under this summer

Evening Standard

Warren Gatland limps in to meet me at a hotel in Cardiff. He is still nursing the ankles he broke falling from a ¬ladder while cleaning the windows of his beach house in Waihi in New Zealand last April.

But, while his footsteps are hesitant, the mind of the head coach, who will take the Lions to Australia in June, is crystal clear. He knows all about the potential problems of picking too many Englishmen for the three-Test tour.

“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.”

Then, after reassuring me that, “the best players will be selected”, he says: “It’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise. We all know what happened with England at the World Cup and the circus that was created. I’ve just got to be aware of the possibilities that, if there are a number of 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.”

England’s off-the-field antics at the 2011 World Cup, such as a boozy night out at a dwarf-throwing contest, generated negative headlines for Martin Johnson’s side.

In stark contrast, Gatland’s Wales were seen as paragons of virtue in New Zealand as they fought their way through to the semi-finals.

So were Johnson’s reins too slack?

“It’s easy with hindsight to say they should’ve handled some of those situations differently. These are young men filled up with a lot of testosterone and sometimes they need to go out and just unwind. But it’s essential these players know what their boundaries are. The way I work, it’s not a dictatorship, it’s a consultation with the other coaches and senior players or the captain. You might say to players, ‘Go out for a couple of hours and have a beer and maybe you’re back in the hotel by one o’clock’, particularly with night games.”

The former All Black hooker has a reputation for being conservative but Gatland does not shut out players who go against traditional thinking.

“Strangely, I like having people in the squad who are a little bit gregarious,” he says. “I’ve no problem with them wearing the flash boots and doing their hair differently or whatever. You don’t want everyone to be clones of each other, you want different personalities. They can give you a little bit of flavour. You’ve got a responsibility to entertain. It’s an entertainment industry.”

So, he will have no problem if Chris Ashton does his swallow dive for a try. “It’s great for the game. If he drops the ball and doesn’t score then there will be a consequence.

“As long as they understand what the boundaries are, I don’t have a problem with those individuals.”

While Gatland has no doubts on that issue, there is another he has concerns about; whether potential Lions players, born outside of Britain and Ireland, are truly aware of the unique nature of the team. England had five ‘outsiders’ in their match-day 23 last weekend, while Scotland had three, Wales two and Ireland one.

When I put this issue to Gatland his response is that of a politician: “That’s a really interesting question.” But then he reveals: “It’s something that we’ve touched on. These are the sort of things that come into consideration when you finally select the squad.”

This is an issue he and his coaches have considered in the two selection meetings they have held to pick a preliminary squad. A further meeting is due in London in a couple of weeks.

But, surely, the question of whether some of the players really ‘get’ the Lions must also apply to Gatland — a man born in New Zealand 49 years ago, who won 17 caps for the All Blacks and during a playing career in his homeland made a record 140 appearances for Waikato?

Not so, says Gatland, who has been brought up on their folklore since Carwyn James’s team notched the only Lions’ victory against the All Blacks back in 1971. Gatland also recalls having scrapbooks of Welsh greats Barry Johns and Gareth Edwards. His coaching experience in the northern hemisphere has supplemented this childhood memory, making him very aware of the politics of the different countries. The sensitivities of the four Home Nations complicates Lion selections, as demonstrated when Gatland was in charge of Ireland and his fellow Kiwi Graham Henry took the Lions to Australia in 2001. “Henry was coaching Wales and a lot of people felt that maybe too many Welsh players went on that tour. From an Irish perspective, we were disappointed that we had three or four players that missed out.”

Gatland is confident he will not face such problems because, unlike Henry, he sees himself as a northern hemisphere coach.

“Henry had been in the Welsh job for about 18 months when he was appointed for the Lions, not having been long in the northern hemisphere. To be honest, when he looks back, he wasn’t really prepared for it. I’ve been here pretty much full-time since 1989. I’m much more of a northerner, that’s where I’ve done most of my coaching. I lived in Ireland for a long time and coached there [1998-2001], coached in London with Wasps [2002-2005] and now five years in Wales. Having lived in three countries, I have a ¬reasonable understanding of a lot of the cultural differences. In Ireland, it’s a political minefield at times dealing with the issues of the north and the south.”

To prepare for the Lions, Gatland has taken a sabbatical from his Wales job which he says should show the players and coaches from Ireland, Scotland and England he is being as neutral as possible.

“If we’re making a 50/50 decision on a player, it won’t be about the country they come from. It’ll probably be looking at what they’re like as people. Are they good people? Will they be able to handle the disappointment if they’re not selected in the Test squad? Will they be supportive of the rest of the team? Do they relate and communicate? We’ve got to bring a squad together in such a short period [the team gather in London five days before their first match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong] that the last thing we need is factions within the squad.”

For the Lions to win a series in Australia for the first time since 1989, Gatland knows he needs luck and this makes him reflect on England’s resurgence under Stuart Lancaster.

“England could’ve easily lost the first two games in the Six Nations last year. If they had lost those games [to Scotland and Italy], Stuart probably wouldn’t have been reappointed. They would’ve gone for a more experienced, maybe an overseas coach. It just goes to show the fine lines in terms of success and failure.”

But Gatland is quick to say Lancaster’s progress is down to more than luck.

“I am not surprised by Stuart’s success. There was a process he needed to go through to limit the amount of damage that had been done during the World Cup and Stuart has done an excellent job. The environment you create is one of the most important things. He’s put in place some structures and values and he’s stuck to them. He needed to remind players about what it meant to play for England, what their responsibilities were. It’s interesting to see comments by a few of the English players. They felt there were different tiers or structures in the past. Now everyone feels on a level footing. They seem happy.”

One player who has been part of the England resurgence is Owen Farrell, whose kicking under pressure in Dublin kept England on course for the Grand Slam.

Gatland says: “He’s a good young player. He would probably say that at the start of the season there were a few games with Saracens he didn’t play as well as he would’ve liked.

“But I’ve been impressed with his resolve that he’s come back and particularly the last two games when he’s played exceptionally well.”

The fly-half is a strong candidate for the tour and, if selected, will join dad, England backs coach Andy, who will be part of Gatland’s back-room team.

“He came very highly recommended. I hadn’t worked with him before and, from a selfish point of view, it’s nice to have a fresh face, different voice, different ideas, that challenges me. As a coach I want to be challenged all the time by people that are around me.”

Last year, Gatland led Wales to the Grand Slam and following the second round of this season’s Six Nations, England are the only team capable of emulating that feat.

However, Gatland says: “I don’t think there’ll be a Grand Slam winner this year. I’d be surprised if any team go through undefeated this year. It’s a very close tournament.”

But, while Gatland did not see much open rugby in Dublin on Sunday, he was much encouraged by the first week of matches. “Last year, the Six Nations was very much defence dominated, teams were relatively conservative in the way they played. But not this year. The first weekend in particular, teams have played with a bit more tempo and a lot more positively.”

Gatland would love to recreate this positivity in Australia but is ready to imitate Sir Alex Ferguson to achieve victory. “I would be prepared to play mind games,” he says. “There are times when you’ve got to be prepared to stir the pot a little bit.”

The Australians have been warned.

Gatland on discipline

Sometimes players need to go out and unwind. It’s essential they know what their boundaries are. The way I work, it’s not a dictatorship, it’s a consultation with the other coaches and senior players.

Gatland on England

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.

Gatland on selection

We’ll be looking at what they’re like as people. Do they relate and communicate? We’ve got to bring a squad together in such a short period that the last thing we need is factions within it.

As proud principal partner of the Lions on their tour to Australia this summer, HSBC is offering an exclusive 30 per cent discount on the official replica Lions jersey at


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