London: Warren Gatland has assured England coach Stuart Lancaster selection for this year’s British and Irish Lions tour of Australia will be based solely on merit.
The Lions boss had suggested an excess of England players in the combined side could lead to the kind of media “circus” that engulfed the Red Roses’ doomed 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand.
But since then Lancaster has replaced Martin Johnson at the helm of what is a youthful side that have beaten the world champion All Blacks and now lead the Six Nations as the only country in this season’s Championship with a chance of completing the Grand Slam after wins in the first two rounds.
However, since sparking an unwanted furore, Gatland has been at pains to stress the “best players would always be selected” and the New Zealander even went so far to say he’d happily field an entire England XV for the first Test against the Wallabies in June.
Gatland had long been scheduled to meet with Lancaster on Thursday but the recent remarks, for all he has since disowned them, had turned what should have been a routine encounter into a near diplomatic “peace” summit.
Afterwards a relieved Lancaster, who has worked hard to improve England’s off-field as well as on-field behaviour, said: “I’ve had a good chat with Warren and he reassured me that selection would be based on merit. I’ve obviously relayed that to the squad and I’m comfortable with that.”
England assistant coaches Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell will both be involved in Gatland’s backroom team in Australia and the Kiwi enjoyed meeting his new deputies on Thursday.
“I had a great welcome and after sitting down with Stuart Lancaster and his coaches for a chat I was able to sit in on the debrief of the (12-6) win over Ireland in Dublin (last weekend).
“The English camp is a very friendly, open, disciplined and courteous environment and I was very impressed by what I saw.
“I have frequently put on record my admiration for the way in which Stuart Lancaster has gone about his business since taking over the top job in England.
“He has set high standards, proper parameters and is getting the players to respond accordingly.
“The fact my visit coincided with all the furore over comments I made to a journalist about wanting to protect the English players in the Lions party from external forces made it all the more apt.
“It still amazes me that out of a one-and-a-half hour interview, a lot of which was spent discussing English rugby, a 13 word-headline is all that people read and remember,” Gatland added in a Lions newsletter.
“In many ways, the media reaction, or overreaction, to what I actually said and meant merely served to highlight the negativity I am seeking to guard against.
“For the record, as was also reported in the original article, but largely overlooked, ‘the best players will be selected’. It has always been that way with the Lions and always will be,” Gatland insisted.
The Lions, who haven’t won a series since England great Martin Johnson led them on their 1997 tour of South Africa, face Australia in the first of three Tests in Brisbane on June 22.