Chris Robshaw could still play a part for the British and Irish Lions despite being given the summer off by Stuart Lancaster, the England coach. The red rose captain was devastated at being overlooked by Warren Gatland for the tour to Australia but the Lions coach has dangled a potential lifeline.
Robshaw was one of five senior England players Lancaster chose not to take to Argentina in the wake of a gruelling campaign for club and country but, as the Lions squad gathered together for the first time on Monday, Gatland revealed he or his coaching staff have made those not in action this summer aware that they could still be called up should injury demand replacements – an inevitability on a Lions tour.
Gatland has identified some 30 players from whom replacements would be chosen – Lions officials need a wish list in order to arrange visas at short notice – and among them are those left at home by England.
As well as Robshaw, Danny Care, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt and Toby Flood have been excused England's two-Test tour to Argentina.
"The few players who have been rested are not going to be discounted from potentially going on tour," said Gatland. "That's been communicated to a few of those players."
The squad met up at a hotel in west London yesterday minus Brian O'Driscoll, who remained in Dublin for treatment on his back. He is expected to be fit for Friday's Amlin Cup final for Leinster.
Twenty-two of the squad will head for Wales today to begin preparations in earnest – 14 still have club duties: Leicester will face Northampton in the Premiership final and Ulster take on Leinster in the Pro12 final, as well as the Amlin Cup final for the Leinster six.
Among those heading for Wales will be Owen Farrell, who has endured a troubled end to his season, culminating in Saracens' home defeat to Northampton in the Premiership semi-finals on Sunday. He had another poor game, following similar high-profile setbacks in the Heineken Cup – when he was overshadowed by Jonny Wilkinson – and the Six Nations finale in Cardiff. "It's been tough for him," admitted Gatland.
The choice of only two No 10s for the 10-game tour is a gamble by Gatland – the versatile Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg is seen as back-up – and Farrell's form coming into the tour is a concern.
"It does give us an opportunity to work with him over the next two weeks in terms of preparing, particularly for that first game [against the Barbarians on 1 June]," said Gatland. "He's one of those players who respond really well to adversity and can come back fighting. It is one of the reasons we like him so much. He is a strong character, mentally tough as well. He will react well."
Farrell received similar backing from the man with whom he will contest the No 10 shirt, the Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton. "He's got a pretty good character, he's resilient," said Sexton. "He's had some pretty big performances for England and Saracens over the last few years."
Sexton returned to Dublin last night with his Leinster team-mates and, although he remains the likeliest to start the first Test in Brisbane on 22 June, Farrell does have the initial advantage of being involved from the off in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales' training centre, today. "It will be a head start," said Sexton.
With the Irishman not rejoining the squad until after the Pro12 final on 25 May – the team departs two days later – Farrell should get first go against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June. In all, there are six games before the first Test and Sexton believes having just two players competing for the fly-half spot means each will receive much-needed game time.
"As a 10, the more time you get the better, in terms of guys getting to know you and you getting to know the guys – you're one of the most important positions in that regard," said Sexton. "Guys need to know how you play. The more important time I'm on the pitch the better."
The staggered arrival of the players, as well as the accompanying risk of injury from playing until hours before the plane leaves for Hong Kong, has proved a cause of frustration for Gatland. Bringing together the four rugby corners of Britain and Ireland is made even more challenging by the build-up, and Gatland believes arrangements have to change for future tours.
"It is not the easiest thing to do in terms of preparation," said the New Zealander. "Going forward, if you are going to take a Lions tour seriously you do need to make sure you get adequate preparation time to make a good fist of it. It's about trying to fit that into the [domestic] schedule. You need cooperation from the four governing bodies and competition organisers. I can't change the schedule but my ideal thing would be having two weeks here for preparing before we go on tour."