In partnership with the HKRFU
Lions boss Warren Gatland allays England fears over test selection
Agence France-Presse in 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 his side could lead to the kind of media "circus" that engulfed the Red Roses' doomed 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand.
Those comments sparked a furore in England, and Gatland is now at pains to stress the "best players would always be selected". The New Zealander went as far as saying he would happily field an England 15 for the first test against the Wallabies in June.
Gatland had long been scheduled to meet with Lancaster but the recent remarks - even though he has since disowned them - turned what should have been a routine encounter into a near diplomatic "peace" summit.
Lancaster, who has worked hard to improve England's behaviour on and off the field, 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 back-room team in Australia.
"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," Gatland said. "It still amazes me that out of a 11/2-hour interview, a lot of which was spent discussing English rugby, a 13-word headline is all that people read and remember.
"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 have not won a series since their 1997 tour of South Africa, play Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1, ahead of their three-test Australia tour.