2013 British & Irish Lions
Gatland reassures English hopefuls
ESPN Staff
February 14, 2013
Lions coach Warren Gatland shares a joke with England coach Stuart Lancaster during an England training session, St Georges Park, Burton-upon-Trent, England, February 13, 2013
Warren Gatland visited the England camp on Wednesday © Getty Images

Lions head coach Warren Gatland has reassured England players that he will select the touring party for Australia this summer on merit and not nationality.

Gatland visited the England camp, as part of his role as Lions head coach, following his controversial comments this week that too many England players in his touring squad could create a "media circus" in Australia.

The Lions head coach subsequently insisted that he would be happy to select 15 Englishmen for the Test team if they were the players in their positions. And England head coach Stuart Lancaster says Gatland reassured him personally there would be no bias against England players and he would select the Lions squad on merit alone.

Lancaster says he then passed the message on to his squad of players, who currently sit on top of the Six Nations table after impressive wins over Scotland and Ireland.

"I had a good chat with him and he reassured me all English players would be picked on merit, which is clearly the way it should be," he told Sky Sports News. ""From there we had a chat with (Andy Farrell) and Graham (Rowntree), who are obviously on the Lions coaching team and involved in selection. And I was able to relay that to the players on Wednesday morning, and we got on with training."

Lancaster added: "A lot of people talk about an arrogant England or a team that has done this or that. And whilst that may have been true in the past, I don't know, from my point of view all I can comment on and all I think we can be judged on is what we are doing in the here and now.

"From what I see of the players I think they give respect to people who they meet, they keep their heads down, they are good people on and off the field; they train hard and work hard for England. And I think they have shown that in their performances."

Gatland has been impressed by the work Lancaster has done in rebuilding the England team following that World Cup, to the point where they are now front-runners in the Six Nations.

Lancaster's assistant coaches Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell will be part of Gatland's Lions management team and there could also be a strong English playing contingent in Australia this summer.

"I had a great welcome and after sitting down with Stuart Lancaster and his coaches for a chat I was able to sit in on the debrief of the win over Ireland in Dublin. It was well presented by all the coaches, it was interesting and very insightful," Gatland said. "I had spent time the week before with the Welsh players, and will do the same with the Scots next week and the Irish the week after.

"The English camp is a very friendly, open, disciplined and courteous environment and I was very impressed by what I saw. I have frequently put on record my admiration for the way in which Stuart Lancaster has gone about his business since taking over the top job in England. He has set high standards, proper parameters and is getting the players to respond accordingly.

"The fact my visit coincided with all the furore over comments I made to a journalist about wanting to protect the English players in the Lions party from external forces made it all the more apt. I mixed with the players and was blown away once again by the interest in, and desire to be a part of, the Lions experience."

Gatland has been frustrated by the attention his interview generated, arguing the storm highlighted the point he was trying to make about the baggage which comes with English players.

"It still amazes me that out of a one and a half hour interview, a lot of which was spent discussing English rugby, a 13 word-headline is all that people read and remember," Gatland added in a Lions newsletter. "In many ways, the media reaction, or overreaction, to what I actually said and meant merely served to highlight the negativity I am seeking to guard against.

"We are leaving no stone unturned in our planning for the tour to Australia and protecting the players, sometimes from themselves, from the Australian and their own media, is a part of that process. We have to plan for every eventuality.

"For the record, as was also reported in the original article, but largely overlooked, 'the best players will be selected'. It has always been that way with the Lions and always will be."

The Lions will launch their analysis of the Australian players when the Super Rugby season begins this weekend and Gatland was encouraged by the first two rounds of the Six Nations.

"I have been pleased with what I've seen so far. We had a lot of good rugby in the opening round but last weekend was far more attritional, largely because of the weather," Gatland said. "Last week's action was also full of guts, character and attitude which was great to see. England have done well in their opening two games and the tournament looks like being very tight."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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