This Warren Gatland 'anti-England grenade' can only blow up in his face
Anti-English comments from Lions head coach leave him open to accusations of bias down the line
Warren Gatland would not claim to be the world's greatest living diplomat: over the last couple of years, he has tacitly accused the England hooker Dylan Hartley of cowardice; publicly admitted that he considered cheating during the Wales-France semi-final at the last World Cup; and ventured to suggest that the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union influenced match officials during the same tournament. The phrase "Gatland grenade" was coined in honour of these occasional verbal explosions and is now an accepted part the sporting lexicon.
There is rarely anything accidental about these apparent outrages. Blessed with the boredom threshold of a gnat, the 49-year-old New Zealander pulls out the pin and takes aim whenever he is feeling suitably mischievous about a game he played outstandingly well and coaches even better. As he told this newspaper back in 2009, there is nothing he likes less than being constrained by someone else's idea of discretion. It is what makes him one of the treasures of this rugby age.
The trouble comes when one of his missiles lands too close to home and leaves everyone in the vicinity with a face full of dirt. Which was what happened this week when he said, in an interview with the Evening Standard, that picking large numbers of England players for a British and Irish Lions tour squad was problematical because "they are not always popular with other countries because of the history" and that "people like having a pop at them." He went on to suggest that their presence tended to crank up the media heat around a Test series, giving the "circus" at the last World Cup a mention in dispatches.
This would have been inflammatory enough had he been speaking in his capacity of head coach of Wales. Unfortunately, he was speaking in his capacity as head coach of yep, the British and Irish Lions, who tour once every four years – they travel to Australia this summer – and are generally regarded as the most exclusive team in the whole of rugby.
On Wednesday, Gatland was in damage limitation mode, rowing back faster than Steve Redgrave in his pomp. "I am extremely disappointed that anybody should try to misinterpret what I said," he commented, adding that any such "misinterpretation" was "absolute bollocks". He added that he would be perfectly happy to field 15 Englishmen against the Wallabies come the opening Test in Brisbane in mid-June "if I thought they were the best 15 for the job".
Those who know Gatland well will have some sympathy for him. Undeniably, the last World Cup was a "circus" – some might say a "freak show" – from the England point of view, and it is equally legitimate to argue that in certain parts of the rugby-playing world, and perhaps all of it, there is no greater fun to be had than kicking the English from one end of a pitch to the other.
Brian Smith, the Australian who played for Ireland before spending a little over three years as England's attack coach, has suggested recently that the price of this colonial triumphalism is still being paid, at least in part, by today's red-rose rugby men.
However, it is Gatland who will pay now. Selection for the forthcoming tour was always likely to be a delicate operation: now, it will be seen against the unforgiving background of his indelicate commentary on matters English. Some of the red-rose players most heavily implicated in the behavioural excesses of the last World Cup campaign – the centre Manu Tuilagi and the wing Chris Ashton, to name but a couple – are strong candidates for the trip. Should one or both of them miss out, it will not take long for some people to decide that two plus two makes five.
Chris Robshaw, the England skipper, is in an even more interesting position. Earlier this season, Gatland indicated that Robshaw might struggle to make the cut – partly because the competition at open-side flanker included such high-calibre operators as Sam Warburton of Wales and Sean O'Brien of Ireland, and partly because he played the wrong style of game. Less than three months on, the Harlequins forward is the bookmakers' favourite for the Lions captaincy. Again, the issues surrounding his selection have been complicated by the coach's remarks.
And what of the response from the England hierarchy? Bill Beaumont, the Rugby Football Union chairman who led the Lions in South Africa in 1980 and managed them in New Zealand in 2005, is not easily riled, but he could not help responding to Gatland's comments – and responding extremely sharply, by his standards – within hours of them being published. Today, the red-rose coach Stuart Lancaster will no doubt be given every opportunity to do the same when he appears in public session at an England training camp in Staffordshire.
Lancaster is pretty much the polar opposite of Gatland in terms of temperament: he is not given to grand pronouncements of any description, still less grand denouncements. But he may just feel a little aggrieved at the reference to the random vulgarities of the last World Cup campaign, for the very good reason that he has spent the last 14 months successfully restoring the England team's reputation. Will he bite back? The temptation will be strong.
Heaven knows, Gatland is not the first coach to generate his own controversy ahead of a Lions Test series: his countryman, Graham Henry, managed to undermine the chances of the strongest squad to leave these shores in decades when, on arriving in Australia in 2001, he made it clear to the players – and, subsequently, to everyone else at an infamous press conference in Gosford – that he was interested only in the Test elite, and that the rest of the 38-strong party could go fiddle with their frustrations.
Some would argue that Sir Clive Woodward also cooked his own goose when, for the visit to New Zealand in 2005, he not only picked too many players – there was a running joke through the tour that he had been forced to hire Thunderbird II because it was the only plane with sufficient space – but chose Alastair Campbell, that master of political dark arts, as his media enforcer. Predictably, Campbell quickly became the story rather than the story-spinner and the whole thing went pear-shaped.
But Gatland may be the first Lions head coach to have raised hackles this early in the piece. Having dealt courageously with a situation of extreme sensitivity while recruiting his back-room team – the decision to omit his long-time friend and close colleague Shaun Edwards in favour of the England staffer Andy Farrell was far from easy – he now finds himself under unnecessary pressure of his own making.
"Hand on heart," he said, "I would never be able to look myself in the mirror if we didn't pick a player who deserved to go on tour just because he was English."
There is not the slightest reason to disbelieve him. Even so, selection decisions made for the best of reasons will now be viewed by the Little Englander wing of the red-rose game with considerable suspicion. This particular "Gatland grenade" has gone off in the wrong place, at the wrong time – and, in all likelihood, to the benefit of the wrong people.
Lousy Lions: Managerial misjudgments
The Ireland hooker Ciaran Fitzgerald was asked to lead the Lions in New Zealand, even though he was far from the best player in his position. The tourists were "blackwashed".
Selectorial bargaining saw the entire Scotland tight five travel to All Black country, where they were quickly exposed as weak links. "Too many political picks", said the England flanker Mike Teague.
Graham Henry, the first "foreigner" to coach the Lions, made the fundamental mistake of splitting the party in two by prioritising a Test side many players suspected had been pre-selected.
Clive Woodward broke with Lions tradition by selecting a huge party for New Zealand, rather than an elite one, misplacing his faith in some English veterans who were past their sell-by date.
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