Still time for Lions hopefuls
Coach Warren Gatland is leaving door open for players fighting injury concerns
There is a line of thought that if the British & Irish Lions are to win the series against Australia this summer, they will need a quality No 7 - and they don't come any better than Sam Warburton, says Warren Gatland.
The Lions coach, in town to witness his first Hong Kong Sevens as a guest of Lions sponsor HSBC, was playing his cards close to his chest, and refused to be drawn on who will captain the touring side, but he was effusive in his praise for the Wales backrower, especially after his performance against England last week.
"He played superbly against England coming back from injury. I rate him as a genuine 7 and the fact that he played 6 against England as well means he can cover a couple of positions [on tour]," Gatland said.
"He is one of a number of players in contention for the captaincy and very well respected, but I'm not going to make that decision so far out. It is about picking a squad first and then see who we think will be a starting player, and that's most important."
If admiration and respect are ingredients a captain must have from his peers as well as the coaching staff, then Warburton appears favourite for the role when Gatland announces his squad on April 30. The Lions will stop over in Hong Kong on their way to Australia, playing the Barbarians on June I at Hong Kong Stadium.
The 30-3 win by Wales over England not only cemented Warburton's credentials with Gatland, but it also opened his eyes to a new thought process. Before the Six Nations climax, things had been heavily England-oriented, even though Gatland had created controversy by saying touring English players brought a lot of baggage with them and would put pressure on the tour party as a whole.
"The outcome of the Six Nations, especially that last game, changed my mind [on the selection process]," Gatland said. "England had done well in the autumn tests and played well in the All Blacks game. They then won their first four games [in the Six Nations], and had they beaten Wales a lot of those players would have been definitely in.
"But you have got to take into consideration the fact that Wales came out and won so comprehensively. The experience of some of the [Welsh] players, and the fact that Wales won the championship has probably flipped over four or five positions for the Lions.
"I don't want to be specific, and it would be unfair to say right now who is going on tour and who is not. But my thinking has changed as a result of that performance."
New Zealander Gatland, who is on leave from his role as Wales coach due to his Lions duties, revealed he was cheering the men from the valleys at Millennium Stadium nine days ago.
"I tried to be neutral as I'm coaching the Lions. But at the end of the day I'm still employed as the Wales coach and will be going back. I was absolutely happy. In the past five years I have been involved we have won two grand slams and a championship, and also a quarter-finals spot at the World Cup.
"But you couldn't have written a better script for the Six Nations as far as Wales were concerned. At the end of the day, that 30-3 result didn't shock me. Wales played poorly in their first game against Ireland, went to Paris and won and didn't get any credit for that as well as beating Italy in Rome, and very little credit for beating Scotland away.
"They turned up for the last game and everyone was writing about England winning the grand slam. From a motivational point of view, playing at home and with a lot of players thinking 'If I play well and we beat England I've got a chance to be selected for the Lions', that result didn't surprise me.
"That win has showed that the Lions will need to raise the level of intensity. We saw another level of physicality and intensity [at Millennium Stadium] and that's what we need to do when we go down to Australia because it is going to be a real cauldron.
"That is the level we will be playing in terms of big match atmosphere. In the England-Wales game we saw two teams turning up to play rugby and the atmosphere was never anything like I experienced in a rugby game. The intensity was amazing and we need to replicate that when we go to Australia."
Although the Six Nations will weigh heavily when he sits down to make his final selection of 35 or 36 players, Gatland said those returning from injury still had a chance to prove themselves. This will give some breathing room for players such as Paul O'Connell, Dan Lydiate and Tommy Bowe, who all missed the championship through injury.
"We've [Lions management] had three or four meetings after last weekend to look at nailing down a squad. We have 50 to 60 names in mind and have got to narrow it down to 35 or 36," Gatland said.
"Quite a few players are injured and coming back and they have got a chance to show us with their performances in the European Cup and domestic competitions. All I can say is go out and play well and you are in with a chance."