Should Gatland pick France-based players?
April 8, 2013
Will Toulon prop Gethin Jenkins feature for the Lions this summer? © PA Photos
Welcome to the latest edition of Tackling Rugby - our regular feature that will debate the key issues in the game.
With Warren Gatland set to unveil his British & Irish Lions squad at the end of the month, we look at whether he should consider taking the players based in France to Australia. There is a possible fixture clash in the pipeline with the Top 14 season finale taking place on the same day as the Lions' first game against the Barbarians - so should Gatland allow any players involved in that game to join the Lions party later on or not at all?
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton argues that if they are good enough, they should travel:
When a British & Irish Lions squad departs to the southern hemisphere, on that plane should be the best players available to the selectors. When Warren Gatland was unveiled as the man chosen to lead the Lions to Australia in, he said that he was looking at player's character just as much as form and ability.
At present it looks like Gethin Jenkins, who will re-join the Cardiff Blues at the end of the season, could be involved in the latter stages of the Top 14. The possible fixture clash would mean that players involved in the final - individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson, Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan, Steffon and Delon Armitage, Lee Byrne and Nathan Hines could be on domestic duty - will be required for a game the same day as the Lions' tour opener against the Barbarians.
But this should not matter a jot. If Gatland deems Wilkinson to be in better nick than another fly-half, but opts for the other No.10 due to Wilkinson's unavailability for one match, then this makes a mockery of selecting the 'best players available'.
This dilemma has previous. Back in 2009 Hines chose the Lions over playing in the Top 14 final for Perpignan but the game has moved on at a rapid pace since that trip to South Africa and it is now a more cut-throat financial beast. It seems unlikely that players will be able to make the same commitment this time around.
On past Lions jaunts it proved that it is inevitable that throughout the tour, players will get injured. Other players step into the void and take their chance - like Martin Corry did in 2001. Gatland's reservations about not picking a player who is unavailable for the start of the tour revolves around team harmony.
He clearly fears that the bonding process will be harmed by the odd player not being there from the outset but this is perhaps a slightly idealistic view as it will almost certainly not be the same 38 players boarding the plane to Hong Kong at the end of May who walk down the steps at Heathrow come July.
This tour is winnable from a Lions' point of view. But they will only triumph Down Under if Gatland can juggle the best players at his disposal. If Gatland deems these to be the likes of Jenkins, Sheridan or Wilkinson, then they must travel and join up with the squad one they have completed the Hong Kong leg of their tour.
ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins suggests it may be a mistake:
The British & Irish Lions will have precious little time to prepare for their eagerly-awaited tour to Australia this summer. The demands of an epic domestic season ensure that the Lions will not gather as a squad until the day after Premiership and PRO12 finals on Sunday, May 26. They will then attend a farewell dinner that night before boarding the flight to Hong Kong on the Monday with their first tour clash the following Saturday against the Barbarians.
The coaching team - led by Warren Gatland - will be under immense pressure to conjure the cohesion and team spirit that will be required to not only win against the Wallabies and claim a first series victory since 1997 but also survive the trials and tribulations of what will be a gruelling tour both on and off the field with plans no doubt underway to hit the tourists from all sides. As a result, those first few days when battered bodies and minds assemble and put usual rivalries aside will be pivotal in setting the tone and forging the camaraderie for the six-week slog ahead of them.
The scheduling of the Top 14 season in France - that runs a week longer than the domestic battles on the other side of the Channel - has certainly handed Gatland and his assistants a headache. A host of potential Lions currently ply their trade in France with many playing for teams that could be challenging for the Bouclier de Brennus on the same day the Lions will be running out against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
They would also require time to recover from an arduous season with their availability set to be delayed even further as a result. And let us not forget that most of those names have not graced a Test match stage fopr some time and despite the intensity of the Heineken Cup, it has not been a vintage year and we cannot be sure they will be up to the pace of the fiercest of international contests.
By all means draft such quality players into the mix as the inevitable injuries occur but by waiting for them and appearing to favour them in terms of selection you risk a repeat of the ill-feeling that plagued the 2001 tour and upsetting the harmony built to that point.
Those hoping that Wilkinson and co may opt out of the end of the domestic season in favour of the Lions - as Clermont lock Nathan Hines chose to do in 2009 - may be guilty of wishful thinking. Not only do they owe a debt of gratitude to a club and a deep-pocketed owner for bolstering their bank balances and, in some cases, breathing life back into careers, but the scars of last season when they lost in both the Top 14 and Amlin Challenge Cup finals will be firing a burning desire to go one better this time.
You only have sympathy for Gatland as the timing of the squad announcement - April 30 - does not even allow him to include players who may find themselves at a loose end come tour departure due to an earlier-than-expected exit from the Top 14 title race.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.