Warren Gatland warns of 'English circus' as he ponders his selections for the Lions tour

Gatland has acknowledged the strong flowering of the red rose in the current Six Nations

The history of the British and Irish Lions is a tale of fierce rivals from four nations, drawn together in common cause against one of rugby's southern hemisphere superpowers – invariably after a few weeks spent knocking seven bells out of each other in the great union citadels of Europe. It comes as some surprise, then, that the head coach of this year's vintage should suggest that English players might be more trouble than they are worth.

In an interview, Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who has coached Wales for the last five years after a successful spell in English club rugby with Wasps, acknowledged the strong flowering of the red rose in the current Six Nations and indicated that he would include a number of the current team in his party to tour Australia this summer. But he added: "That brings a certain element of – how do I say it – other pressures... English players are targeted by other countries. They are not always the most popular... People like having a pop at them.

"We all know what happened with England at the World Cup and the circus that was created. I have to be aware of the possibility that, if there are a number of English players on the tour, the same sort of thing could be instigated, through media stings or set-ups."

His words were hardly likely to maximise harmony, and indeed they did not. The Rugby Football Union chairman, Bill Beaumont, who captained the Lions in South Africa in 1980 and managed them in New Zealand a quarter of a century later, retorted: "It is well documented that this England team has a strong culture and sense of responsibility, on and off the pitch. Those fortunate enough to be picked will of course take those attributes Down Under."

Ironically, news from Wales increased the chances of Chris Robshaw, the England captain, being asked to skipper the Lions in Wallaby country. Rob Howley, who has replaced Gatland as head coach on an interim basis, has already announced an unchanged side for the Six Nations game with Italy in Rome on Saturday week – a decision that means the early favourite for the Lions honour, Sam Warburton, will not return to the starting line-up even if he recovers from a shoulder injury.