Battered Robshaw may be left outside Lions' den
England captain could miss Australia tour because coach Gatland favours a 'pure' No 7
As if Chris Robshaw does not have enough on his plate, what with 12 days of wild controversy over his decision-making under pressure and the small matter of a meeting with the brilliant All Blacks looming large on his personal horizon, the England captain's chances of taking his career to new heights in Australia next summer have taken something of a knock. Warren Gatland, the head coach of the 2013 British & Irish Lions, will pick a specialist breakaway forward of the fast and loose variety for the Test series against the Wallabies rather than a multi-purpose all-rounder like the red-rose skipper.
"When you look at the Australian bank of open-side flankers – not just David Pocock, who is a world-class player, but also Michael Hooper and Liam Gill – it's really very strong," said Gatland, who, wearing a second hat as head coach of Wales, must attempt to out-think the Wallabies in an important international at the Millennium Stadium this weekend. "The way the game is played and refereed in the English Premiership, you find a lot of teams going with 'six and a halves' rather than pure No 7s, who find it difficult to get in the game because the decisions are so loaded towards the attacking side. In Australia, we'll need a genuine breakaway."
Sam Warburton, the current Wales captain, remains the favourite for both the No 7 shirt and the captain's armband – "I thought Sam was outstanding against the All Blacks and Richie McCaw [the world's best open-side flanker] last weekend," Gatland purred – and with injuries affecting Ross Rennie of Scotland and Sean O'Brien of Ireland, it may be that he will put more clear blue water between himself and the competition in Cardiff on Saturday.
Gatland will confirm the make-up of his support staff – assistant coaches, conditioning and medical specialists, logistical experts – a week next Wednesday. He intends to meet with key tactical aides before, during and immediately after the Six Nations Championship, which begins in February, before finalising his tour party in the spring.
The coach did not attempt to disguise his disappointment at the results delivered by the home unions during this autumn international window: England have lost both Tests against major southern hemisphere opposition and do not hold out any great hope of beating the world champions in their final outing; Wales have gone under to Argentina and Samoa, as well as to New Zealand; Scotland have lost a head coach as well as three matches on the bounce.
Only Ireland have faint cause for satisfaction, having unearthed a couple of new players – the Ulster wing Craig Gilroy was mentioned by Gatland – in a couple of free-scoring performances.
He was not, however, in despondent mood. "I think what we've seen from the leading southern hemisphere sides is an ability to play with greater intensity, thanks to their recent experiences in the Rugby Championship," he said. "They've been together for weeks and they're sharper because of it. Being with Wales against the All Blacks last weekend, it was obvious that we struggled to match them for pace in the first half. But as I told the players afterwards, you don't get 73 per cent possession and 57 per cent territory in a second half against a team like New Zealand if you're no good."
Owen Farrell, the Saracens outside-half who is expected to be the one fresh face in England's starting line-up for this weekend's contest with McCaw and company, has joined the great New Zealand captain and two fellow No 10s – the All Blacks playmaker Dan Carter and Frédéric Michalak of France – on the International Rugby Board's shortlist for the player of the year award.
Eyebrows will be raised: the youngster made a thrilling start to his red-rose career in this year's Six Nations but his current form does not obviously place him in such elevated company. Unlike the wonderful Argentine back-rower Juan Fernandez Lobbe, whose omission is inexplicable.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks have lost their hard-bitten hooker Andrew Hore for this weekend's game. Hore has been suspended for five weeks for hitting the Wales lock Bradley Davies with a swinging arm at the start of the match in Cardiff five days ago and will be out of the game until mid-February.
Warren Gatland was speaking at the adidas launch of the new Lions shirt
Board acts over player release
Rugby's supreme governing body, the International Board, will attempt over the next few weeks to strengthen regulations on player release for Test matches, thereby ensuring that full-time professionals from the Pacific Islands and other "second-tier" countries will no longer be prevented or disincentivised from participating at the top level by major European clubs who have them under contract.
Earlier this month, The Independent highlighted problems faced by Fijian players who were placed under intense pressure not to make themselves available for Test rugby. The board said yesterday that "country-specific problems" would be discussed in detail at a series of meetings.
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