LONDON (Reuters) - British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland believes picking too many English players for this year’s Australia tour could cause problems because of the extra media focus and their unpopularity among other nations.
The New Zealander, who won the Six Nations grand slam with Wales last year, takes charge of the combined side for the first time for the three-test tour and has been impressed by England in their last three matches.
“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,” Gatland told London’s Evening Standard newspaper in an interview published on Tuesday.
”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.
“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.”
England lost to France in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals after a tournament marred by tabloid stories of drinking, partying and dwarf-throwing, while centre Manu Tuilagi jumped off a ferry as a joke.
”It’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise,“ Gatland added. ”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.”
There was also further potential bad news for Samoa-born Tuilagi, with Gatland saying his coaching team have discussed whether players born outside Britain and Ireland really understand the magnitude of pulling on a Lions shirt.
“That’s a really interesting question. It’s something that we’ve touched on. These are the sort of things that come into consideration when you finally select the squad,” Gatland said.
He added that players like England’s Chris Ashton would not be excluded from the June and July tour for being too “gregarious”.
Writing by Mark Meadows; Editing by Ken Ferris