Warren Gatland is not quite as mobile as he once was – two dodgy heels, the legacy of a nasty fall in his native New Zealand last year, have put a brake on the former All Black hooker – but he will still leave his peers standing this weekend.
The British and Irish Lions coach is in the final stages of his selection process for the summer Test series in Australia and as he sees this weekend’s European knock-out games as the tipping point, he plans to attend four ties between now and Sunday.
Gatland will be at Adams Park for tonight’s Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final between Wasps, who bagged Heineken Cup titles in 2004 and 2007, and Leinster, the reigning European champions and winners of the elite competition three times in the last four years. Neither side is in vintage nick – the Londoners failed to qualify for this season’s Heineken while the Dubliners could not escape their pool – but both have Lions candidates.
The obvious possibility from the hosts is England lock Joe Launchbury, who will start on the blind-side flank tonight. The positional shift is no bad thing – versatility is a prized asset on Lions tours – but there is a growing school of thought that the trip to Wallaby country might come a bit too soon for a 21-year-old forward beginning to feel the effects of an exhausting first year at the top level.
Leinster, on the other hand, have experienced Lions candidates coming out of their ears, despite the absences of two stellar midfielders: the suspended centre Brian O’Driscoll and the injured outside-half Jonathan Sexton. The full-back Rob Kearney, the loose-head prop Cian Healy and the flanker Sean O’Brien could use a big performance in front of Gatland this evening, even though all three are likely tourists. For the tight-head prop Mike Ross and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip, nothing short of a brilliant display will do.
Thanks to the ease of Heineken Cup qualification from the four-nation Pro12 league, Leinster are not chasing the Amlin title for any ulterior motive. Wasps, on the other hand, may need to win the competition to secure a place in the senior tournament next season. Four successive Premiership defeats have undermined their bid for a top-six domestic finish.
“We must go back to basics and play in the right areas, as we were doing earlier in the season,” said David Young, their rugby director. “We’re confident we have enough quality to win the game. It’s exciting to be involved in this kind of occasion.”