It has never been a good idea for the Lions coach to shoot from the hip. You nearly always end up shooting yourself in the foot, particularly when your weapon of choice, in this instance the Gatland Gun, has no obvious safety lock.
Perhaps Warren Gatland should give Graham Henry a ring and ask him what he learned about diplomacy on the 2001 Tour of Australia. The English can be a mouthy lot, they can be an arrogant lot, they can be a troublesome lot. And they can also be your best friends. In other words they are people.
12 years ago Henry worked the players too hard after a long season in the build-up to the tour. He was anxious to succeed and put his anxiety into hard work. But the last thing the players needed was hard work. Henry’s ergonomic regime created a degree of mutiny. A large part of that came from the English, but then they were a large part of the tour.
The whole point about the Lions is that it should bring people together. The fans come together and the players come together. So it is unfortunate that Gatland’s recent comments show that he is a straightforward lad from Hamilton who probably has a bit of divisive racism in him.
For those who have not read it yet Gatland said, “English players 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.”
At this point it might be worth reminding Gatland that Mike Phillips, Andy Powell and Gavin Henson, all of who are Welsh, have had a fair few run-ins with the media. The firestorm on the 2005 Tour – apart from the ridiculous vanity appointment of Alistair Campbell – was the spear tackle on Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll. The wreckers and the Firemen’s Union on the ’74 Tour were primarily Irish and Welsh.
Before the World Cup, before the fiasco, I (an Englishman) wrote a column saying I hoped that England lost because they were an unattractive bunch of arrogant louts. And so they were, just as Bill Beaumont’s Grand Slam team was a largely good bunch of lads. I repeated the arrogance allegation during the 2011 World Cup and Brian Moore responded by calling me one of those Anglo Saxon words that I recall Chaucer spelling with a ‘q.’
Nationalism is explosive territory and Lions coaches should best avoid it. Chris Robshaw and Stuart Lancaster don’t have decent leadership values because they are English, just as a large part of the World Cup team weren’t arses because they were English. Indeed I seem to remember that the last bloke to behave like an idiot in 2011 was Manu Tuilagi and nobody could accuse him of being English.
Carwyn James, the great coach of the ’71 Lions Tour, was a Welsh nationalist, but he didn’t think of his players that way. He thought of them as individuals, as human beings, inspired by different messages and motivations.
So the message for Gatland is a simple one. Don’t start talking about the English, the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. Talk about the Lions. Together you are strong.
Will Gatland’s comments have got through to the players and set and awkward precedent? Comments below…