Heaslip and Gilroy in Gatland's sights
LIONS TOUR:As reflects the ever-changing nature of the Lions’ selection landscape, the tourists’ head coach in Australia next year, Warren Gatland, yesterday singled out both Craig Gilroy as a player who’d suddenly put himself in the picture, and Jamie Heaslip as someone who’d emerged as a contender for the captaincy.
Gatland and his coaches, to be confirmed on December 12th, will draw up provisional Lions’ squads then and before, during and after the Six Nations.
“Nothing is crystalised at the moment,” said Gatland in Cardiff Castle yesterday for the launch of the Lions’ jersey. “We’re looking at the players who have reputations, form and pedigree, and seeing where they are at, and then who are the youngsters who are putting their hand up at the moment that potentially who might not have been in the frame a while ago.”
“A very obvious example from last week and the Ireland game was Craig Gilroy on the wing. He was outstanding. So he’s put himself into contention. You’re not going to pick a Lions team now based on one performance, are you? But some guy has put his hand up and made you sit up and take a bit of notice and that’s what the last month has been about.”
The captaincy would be quite a quandary were selection now, with the last two Lions captains, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, both sidelined, Welsh captain Sam Warburton struggling for form and English captain Chris Robshaw copping a fearful amount of flak for his endgame decision to take a three-pointer with his side losing 16-12 to South Africa.
“The captaincy is a tough one at the moment,” he conceded. “Ideally it’s someone who is hopefully guaranteed selection in terms of the Test side but then you look at the depth in certain positions and there’s no guarantee of that. It’s kind of one I haven’t got my head around fully at the moment.”
Gatland wouldn’t necessarily rule out picking a captain who had not yet led his international team, a la Martin Johnson in 1997. “The other thing too is that you could, potentially, pick an experienced player who might be tour captain but there’s a chance he might not get picked for the Tests.
“I thought someone like Heaslip now has captained Ireland in the last couple of games, and puts himself in the frame, doesn’t he? I think there’s a lot of potential options. The ideal thing, number one, is having a captain whose form is good enough, he’s got the respect of the rest of the squad and you’d like to think his form is going to be good enough to get selected in a Test series. That’s your preference.”
It’s early days in many ways, and hence Gatland was not unduly concerned by the less than imperious showing of the Home Union teams this month against their Southern Hemisphere counterparts. “I think when you reflect back on the autumn it’s an indication, as you can see from the Championship, that those teams have been together for a number of weeks.
“They’ve probably come in a little bit sharper and a little bit better prepared and having played at an intensity week-in, week-out that has taken some of the Home Unions a little bit of time to get up to speed with really. So I’m not surprised by that really.”
As the Lions will effectively only be coming together when they board the flight, that will be the challenge facing him then. “That first three or four weeks together is going to be key in not getting too hung up about results in those warm-up games leading into those first Tests. It’s looking at combinations and giving everyone the guarantee they’ll get a start in those first three games.”
Gatland is particularly encouraged by the strong competition in the secondrow, back-row, and midfield as well as emerging options in the back three, if potentially a little lighter in other areas.
As for his coaching ticket, the expectation is that Graham Rowntree, who was scrum coach on the Lions tour to South Africa three years ago, defence coach Shaun Edwards (whom Gatland has enjoyed a long working relationship with Wasps and Wales as well as the Lions three years ago) and the England backs coach Andy Farrell will form his main back-up team.