RFU fight English corner

  • Last Updated: February 12 2013, 21:10 GMT

Warren Gatland's comments that the presence of a large England contingent would add unwanted media attention to the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia received a sharp response from the Rugby Football Union on Tuesday.

Gatland: British & Irish Lions coach
Gatland: British & Irish Lions coach

Gatland stated this afternoon that a "circus" surrounded England at the 2011 World Cup and while he stressed the best players will be selected in the summer, he is mindful of the baggage that accompanies them.

The Lions coach also pointed out that English players are unpopular in foreign countries and will be targeted.

Gatland's view will have come as a surprise to England, who have worked hard on their image under coach Stuart Lancaster since the World Cup fiasco two years ago.

RFU chairman Bill Beaumont responded by reminding the New Zealander of the change in culture adopted by Lancaster that would extend to any English player picked by 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."

England's position at the top of the RBS 6 Nations table - they are the only team still capable of winning a Grand Slam - suggests that barring a dramatic collapse, they should be well represented in Australia.

However, Gatland's misgivings are concentrated on the additional pressure they bring and not their ability on the pitch.

"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."

Gatland spoke in glowing terms of England fly-half Owen Farrell, who has propelled himself into Lions reckoning with assured performances against Scotland and Ireland

The 21-year-old is now Jonathan Sexton's closest rival to start in the number 10 jersey 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."

However, Gatland dismissed England's prospects 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.

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