British & Irish Lions 2013
Gatland issues selection warning to Lions hopefuls
September 5, 2012
Warren Gatland hopes to have his coaching team in place before the end of year internationals © Getty Images
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has revealed that character may be just as influential as form when it comes to earning selection for next year's tour to Australia.
The Wales boss was confirmed as the man who will take the elite tourists Down Under in London on Tuesday and he immediately set his mind
While he hopes to have his support staff in place next month, he has also hinted that a preliminary squad could be drawn up before the end-of-year internationals. The makeup of that group is set to be the subject of intense speculation in the coming months with Gatland insisting he will approach the task of selection with "a clean slate" with players' performances for club and country only counting for so much.
Speaking at Gatland's official appointment, British & Irish Lions committee chairman Gerald Davies highlighted that, "Lions tours need good people" not just the best players and it is a sentiment that the Kiwi echoed in his own way. "I'm looking for guys who are tough and selected on form but are also good buggers as well. What I mean by that is take the disappointment and also add to the environment and enhance the team ethos and culture."
Gatland insists there is little chance of his side hitting the headlines for their exploits off the field other than for the traditional efforts to leave a legacy in the local community with England's well-documented troubles in New Zealand last year still fresh in the memory. "We are well aware at what happened in the World Cup and issues that arose from that and it is important we address that and try not to get in any trouble. The other thing is the type of character and personality we pick in the squad and players have got to be aware of.
"They are often coming from a nation where they are No.1 and coming into a Lions set-up where they might be No.2 or No.3. It's about how they handle that disappointment and the challenge that that it brings. You are looking for characters who can fit into a team environment and they are going to be disappointed and it is how they handle it."
The strongest character may well end up leading the squad and while Gatland admitted the likes of England's Chris Robshaw, Wales' Sam Warburton and Ireland duo Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, both captains on previous tours, were obvious candidates he is refusing to commit himself when it comes to a skipper.
"Let's see what happens in terms of performances, success, form," he urged. "One of the things about picking a Lions captain is that it is a difficult thing. There is a lot of competition, and you need to pick someone guaranteed a place in the side. We are all well aware in the past that there were Lions captains that weren't perhaps the best player on tour in his position. There is a number of things to think about."
O'Driscoll will be 34 come the tour and O'Connell will be just one year younger but Gatland insists that age will be no barrier to selection although he did hint that senior players could see their game time restricted accordingly that may impact on their ability to lead the squad.
"The thing with the Lions is that you can pick an older player to take on tour for three or four games and they will not have to train a lot," he explained. "An older player may have struggled through a whole club season and international campaign, there maybe one or two but I don't have anyone in mind, age will not be a barrier."
Gatland's initial idea is for a squad numbering in the "mid-low 30s" and is keen to keep the entire party engaged throughout the tour. "I think it is important that everyone gets an opportunity to start during one of the first three games on the tour and that's something we would like to continue with," he said. "You want players to play a number of games so it is a matter of having that balance so you have enough depth to cover for injuries and not too many players that you have guys who aren't involved for a couple of weeks."
The Kiwi could be spoilt for choice when it comes to his squad, making the task all the more difficult. "The quality of loose forwards out there is outstanding. It's not going to be who you pick, it's who do you leave out," he said. "I'm looking forward to some of those battles in the autumn and the Six Nations which are going to be real dog-fights, Players are talking about it already and I think in certain position there is real depth and there are also a lot of players from 2009 still playing and some real talented youngsters that have come through."
One major problem Gatland faces is the lack of preparation time with his squad. The finals of both the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect PRO12 take place just two days before the squad's planned departure for the tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong that itself clashes with the Top 14 final in France where many leading candidates are currently playing.
The Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finales may also clash with the date of the initial gathering of the squad the week before when Gatland admits at least "half the squad" could be missing. But it is a headache that he is relishing.
"Wales have pushed Australia really close," he said of his most recent encounter with the Wallabies, "but now if you have the chance to pick some of those players and add them to the best of the best from the three Home Nations how much stronger is a Lions tour going to be? It is really exciting."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.