sport

English misgivings for Gatland

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland says he has to consider several factors when selecting English players.

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland believes the 2011 World Cup has demonstrated that selecting a large number of England players for this summer's tour to Australia will result in unwanted media attention.

England's position at the top of the RBS 6 Nations table - they are the only team still capable of winning a Grand Slam - indicates they will be well represented Down Under.

And while Gatland stresses "the best players will be selected", he fears that the English come with their own baggage.

"At the moment, England are playing well," Gatland told the London Evening Standard.

"They did well in the autumn, particularly the outstanding victory against the All Blacks and, if they do well in the Six Nations, there will be a reasonable contingent of English players.

"But that brings a certain element of - how do I say it - other pressures that come with selecting a lot of English players.

"It becomes a much greater media focus from the English papers and potentially a negative focus from the Australian papers. And English players are targeted by other countries.

"They are not always the most popular with other countries because of the history. People like having a pop at them.

"It's just being aware of potential issues that may arise. We all know what happened with England at the World Cup and the circus that was created.

"I've just got to be aware of the possibilities that, if there are a number of English players on the tour, the same sort of things could be instigated, through stings through the media or set-ups trying to create controversy."

Owen Farrell has propelled himself into Lions reckoning with assured performances against Scotland and Ireland and is now Jonathan Sexton's closest rival to start at fly-half against the Wallabies.

"Owen's a good young player. He would probably say that at the start of the season there were a few games with Saracens he didn't play as well as he would've liked," Gatland said.

"But I've been impressed with his resolve that he's come back and particularly the last two games when he's played exceptionally well."

Gatland has also dampened England's hopes of completing their first Six Nations clean sweep since 2003.

"I don't think there'll be a Grand Slam winner this year. I'd be surprised if any team go through undefeated this year. It's a very close tournament," he said.

Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont responded to Gatland's comments by reminding the New Zealander of England's association with the Lions.

"English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride," Beaumont said.

"I was lucky enough to be captain in 1980, Martin Johnson skippered the team to the famous 1997 series win, as well as leading the side for a historic second time, when going down to Australia.

"Wearing the Lions shirt, whether captain or player, is something that all English players take very seriously. This will undoubtedly continue for those that get picked this time.

"It is well documented the strong culture and sense of responsibility on and off the pitch that this England team possesses.

"Those fortunate enough to get picked will of course take those attributes Down Under."