Six Nations: Concerns about England conduct are ancient history now, says Stuart Lancaster
Head coach insists his players will be picked for Lions on merit after Warren Gatland showdown
The first thing on Stuart Lancaster's mind as he presided over a brisk Six Nations training session at the national football centre in Staffordshire was the latest medical bulletin, which confirmed that Ben Morgan, the first-choice England No 8, was still suffering from ankle problems and would definitely miss next week's meeting with France at Twickenham. Only after absorbing that news did the head coach turn his thoughts towards red-rose prospects – or, some would say, the lack of them – for this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
Lancaster met with the Lions coach Warren Gatland on Wednesday night, a day or so after the New Zealander had generated something of a stink by suggesting that in the touring context, England players were sometimes more trouble than they were worth. The scene was set for clear-the-air discussions at the very least, and possibly a frosty exchange. In the event, all was sweetness and light.
"It wasn't an awkward meeting at all: we had a good chat and Warren reassured me that selection would be based on merit, and merit alone," said Lancaster, who gave no indication of being wounded by Gatland's assertion that the presence of England players created a media "circus", or by his references to the mass outbreak of misbehaviour during the tawdry World Cup campaign in 2011.
"What happened at the World Cup is in the past," he continued, "which doesn't mean it will happen in the future. It's a reference point for us, but no more than that: we want to be judged in the here and now. I think what was said was born out of previous perception, but as I've often pointed out, if you keep to a positive line of travel for long enough, people will eventually stop going on about what happened in past years. When I first took over as coach, there were a lot of questions about the team's behaviour. Now, there are a lot of questions about the team's performance."
The coach's view was supported by one of the men implicated in the tawdry off-field excesses of the World Cup campaign. "I don't think there will be any prejudice when it comes to Lions selection," said the Saracens wing Chris Ashton. "I've met Warren a few times and he seems a fair bloke. If the best players are the ones playing in the England team, I'm sure they'll be picked.
"It's a completely different England environment now. The people who played at the World Cup and are still involved have learnt from the experience. If we hadn't, we'd have suffered the consequences. I don't think there will ever be a repeat. What happened was a mistake, and sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn."
While Lancaster does not anticipate any jiggery-pokery surrounding Lions selection, he does expect to have his pastoral skills tested when some of his leading players miss the cut, as they are bound to do in such a tight numbers game. "If the squad was being selected this weekend, I think quite a few of our people would be involved," he said. "But it's early days, isn't it? There's a lot of rugby to be played and there will be tough calls to make.
"As far as I'm concerned, it will be similar to a Monday or a Tuesday in Test week, when I name the 23 for a match and 10 people inevitably feel let down. I think I'll catch players on the rebound for two reasons. Firstly, they'll be going with us on a really challenging tour of Argentina. Secondly, history tells us that on average, nine Lions either get injured before the start of the tour, or injure themselves during it. At least I'll be privy to the thinking behind the Lions selection, because we'll have two of our coaching team [the forwards specialist Graham Rowntree and the backs strategist Andy Farrell] on the trip."
And after the Lions return? How will England be affected then? Several red-rose coaches, Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson included, have pointed to a trend in which England teams under-perform in the year after a British Isles series in the southern hemisphere.
"I've thought that through," said Lancaster, a man who thinks pretty much everything through, in minute detail. "We have rest provisions in place now that didn't exist four years ago, when the Lions last toured. It will have to be managed properly, but I think we'll have everyone fresh and ready by the time the England international season starts in November."
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