Lions spots will be on merit
England coach Stuart Lancaster has received reassurances from Warren Gatland that selection for the British and Irish Lions tour will be based on merit alone.
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Gatland had said in an interview with the Evening Standard that taking a lot of English players on the tour of Australia could lead to a media circus and bring unwanted pressure on the Lions.
The Lions coach is mindful of England's failed 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign and the front-page headlines created by the players' off-field behaviour.
But Gatland always stressed that the "best players would always be selected" - and he emphasised that position to Lancaster during a pre-arranged visit to England's training camp.
"I've had a good chat with Warren and he re-assured me that selection would be based on merit. I've obviously relayed that to the squad and I'm comfortable with that," Lancaster said.
Lancaster has worked hard to change the culture of the England team since replacing Martin Johnson as head coach and he believes any concerns over the players' behaviour are outdated.
"It does not reflect where we are at the moment. From my point of view the players' behaviour has been excellent both on the field and off the field," Lancaster said
"Personally, I've no concern whatever that the players will behave in a professional manner both on the field and off the field.
"I listen to what people say, but I take my view from what's actually happening."
Gatland has been impressed by the work Lancaster has done in rebuilding the England team following that World Cup, to the point where they are now front-runners in the RBS 6 Nations.
Lancaster's assistant coaches Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell will be part of Gatland's Lions management team and there could also be a strong English playing contingent in Australia this summer.
"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 win over Ireland in Dublin. It was well presented by all the coaches, it was interesting and very insightful," Gatland said.
"I had spent time the week before with the Welsh players, and will do the same with the Scots next week and the Irish the week after.
"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.
"I mixed with the players and was blown away once again by the interest in, and desire to be a part of, the Lions experience."
Gatland has been frustrated by the attention his interview generated, arguing the storm highlighted the point he was trying to make about the baggage which comes with English players.
"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.
"We are leaving no stone unturned in our planning for the tour to Australia and protecting the players, sometimes from themselves, from the Australian and their own media, is a part of that process. We have to plan for every eventuality.
"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."
The Lions will launch their analysis of the Australian players when the Super Rugby season begins this weekend and Gatland was encouraged by the first two rounds of the RBS 6 Nations.
"I have been pleased with what I've seen so far. We had a lot of good rugby in the opening round but last weekend was far more attritional, largely because of the weather," Gatland said.
"Last week's action was also full of guts, character and attitude which was great to see. England have done well in their opening two games and the tournament looks like being very tight."