None of the explanations I’ve heard so far for Warren Gatland’s ill-conceived comments about the divisive potential of having too many English players in a Lions squad stack up. For starters, Gatland’s remarks about the English getting under the skin of the host nations any more than anyone else does not stand the test of historical scrutiny. As far as the Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders are concerned the Lions are the enemy, pure and simple, and most of them couldn’t tell you the difference between Leicester and Leinster.
The idea that the English contingent in Lions squads has been the source of more internal strife than the Welsh, Scots or Irish has no foundation in fact either. Having recently been a joint author of Behind the Lions, which is the story of the touring side told exclusively by the players who have worn the famous red shirt, it is fair to say that the various selection controversies, character clashes and splits in the ranks have been pretty evenly divided between the four Home Unions, with English individuals no more or less culpable than any other nationality.
Furthermore, the positive English contribution to the most recent winning tours, in 1989 and 1997, as well as to the narrow defeat which Gatland was a part of four years ago in South Africa, has been well chronicled. Another thing that rings false is that the coaching job that most established Gatland’s reputation, and gave him the credentials to secure his posts with Wales and the Lions, was with Wasps – a club that during his highly successful Heineken Cup and multiple Premiership-winning tenure was almost overwhelmingly English.
On the basis of having worked so closely with players of the calibre and character of Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Alex King and Fraser Waters, it is hard to credit that Gatland has suddenly discovered a disruptive trait in the English psyche.
Here’s the explanation for Gatland’s remarks that makes most sense to me. At this stage in the Lions script, with the Six Nations nearing the halfway point, the head coach would ideally like to have two-thirds of his squad pencilled in. Before the autumn series it is fair to say that the greater share of those pencilled in to the squad would have been Welsh and Irish, based squarely on the Welsh 2011 World Cup campaign, the 2012 Wales Grand Slam, and Leinster’s irrepressible Heineken Cup run.
From those successes Gatland would also already have ear-marked most of his key Welsh and Irish ‘Test match animals’ for this summer’s tour to Australia, and none more so than Sam Warburton, the Cardiff openside who had been installed as Wales captain by Gatland and had been touted as a near certainty for the Lions captaincy after the Grand Slam.
The only hitch – and it is a very big one – is that the summer tours and the Autumn Internationals changed the selection landscape radically. Instead of kicking on, Wales collapsed after suffering a close-fought wipeout on their tour of Australia. Worse still, Warburton’s reputation suffered with them, with the captain losing form just when he needed to nail his captaincy credentials to the mast.
At the same time, England, instead of being stuck in no-man’s land, overwhelmed New Zealand and have made remarkable headway on the back of that landmark victory. That English progress was emphasised by last weekend’s win in Dublin, where, to muddy the Lions selection waters further, strong Irish candidates like Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Conor Murray failed to press their cases, whereas Red Rose men like Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Tom Wood and captain Chris Robshaw took another step forward.
The unforeseen rise of the English presented Gatland with a potential selection headache. To some extent this was soothed – temporarily at least – by the Welsh win in Paris, which at last gave Gatland hope that the players from the Principality that he has worked so closely with for the last five years could re-emerge as Lions contenders across-the-board. This is the context in which Gatland made his remarks about the “pressures” involved in selecting English players for the Lions. In my view, he was attempting to dampen down English expectations of being the dominant force in the 2013 Lions based purely on recent form, mainly because there are non-English candidates, many of them Welsh, whom he believes have established their Lions pedigree.
He chose absolutely the wrong vehicle to do so in raising questions about mainly fictitious pressures that the English bring to the Lions party, and backtracked soon afterwards when he realised that he had let the nationalist genie out of the bottle – because there is nothing in Lions terms more divisive than that.
A more straightforward debate about the relative Lions merits of the English and the Welsh, and the importance of weighing current form against proven pedigree, is less divisive. If form is the yardstick then the Welsh have plenty of ground to make up. Where Leigh Halfpenny, Ryan Jones, George North, Ian Evans, Toby Falateu and Mike Phillips put their hands up against the French, others such as Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert, Richard Hibbard and Justin Tipuric will have to raise the bar.
So will Warburton, because Gatland must be in a quandary over his Wales captain. Warburton has just three games at the highest level – assuming he comes off the bench against Italy – in which to make his case by rediscovering last season’s brio. If form is the yardstick he will have to play out of his skin against Scotland and England to book his place on the plane to Australia.
It is a scenario which probably explains Gatland’s prediction last week that there will be no Grand Slam winner this season. Seeing as England are the only side left who can win one, it means that he either expects them to lose at home to France or Italy – or fail at the final hurdle in Cardiff.
If he is wrong, selection could become more of a migraine than a headache. Gatland’s best course of action is to take a leaf out of Ian McGeechan’s 2009 handbook, keep his comments broad-brushstroke until he sees how all the Six Nations cards fall, and then give it a month until he makes any announcements.