South Africa

Dismal Six Nations campaign means England’s Lions contingent for South Africa may hit historic low

This could well be the smallest England contingent ever on a Lions tour. There were 10 players called up originally by Warren Gatland in 2013. I reckon only nine will get the call this time around.

It was a terrible Six Nations for England and there are no England coaches picked for the Lions, which historically might seem bizarre, but makes sense when you consider their form. Steve Borthwick turned the role down but even so, assessing the mix of the Lions coaching staff… the released pics look like the Mitchells from Albert Square to me.

The fact none of Eddie Jones’ coaching staff have been called up sums up what sort of season they have had. I’d have been surprised if John Mitchell with all of his experience wasn’t consulted, given the coaches who have been picked by Gatland, but maybe Eddie has said England have had such a bad year that none of them are allowed to go.

There has always been politics with previous Lions tours regarding selection. Scotland didn’t used to have as strong a side as they do now and more of their players in the past were selected for the Lions then perhaps should have been, almost like filling a quota. Now the English players will almost be begging to fill their own quota.

You read most people’s Lions XVs and there are only one or two in it. In terms of Lions starters, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje could all start but they’re not getting any game time at the moment with Saracens. Tom Curry definitely starts and then in the backs, there’s Anthony Watson. That’s it.

Had England come first or second in the Six Nations then instead of nine players touring, you might have 16. That’s the sort of difference a good tournament makes. Although it’s not the be all and end all. I remember after defeating Leinster with Leicester back in 2001, Graham Henry was on the side of the pitch and just pointed at me and nodded his head. I knew at that point I was going to Australia. With the English teams no longer in Europe and not performing well in the quarter-finals, that can cost players.

From an English perspective, a lot of it has been a bit turgid if you’re in the national side but having said that, the quality in the Gallagher Premiership is as good as it has ever been.

I wonder how excited an English player will feel about going on this Lions tour to play in empty stadiums with no fans. Think about the Saracens players; where is their drive and inspiration at the moment other than getting promoted into the Premiership. How difficult is it for them to get up for a game? No big European games. Exciting Tests with England? They’ve had one against France. Playing in the Championship? Oh dear, hard.

Very much like the England ‘Tour of Hell’ in 1998 when more of the experienced players miraculously found an injury or reason not to go, I just wonder whether if you are carrying an injury and need an operation – only a small one but enough to keep you out for six to eight weeks – would that force you to think twice about going on this Lions tour? Hard to believe but maybe players will turn it down.

When you factor in that Premiership clubs won’t release their players early building up to the Japan game and that England’s players didn’t perform well in the Six Nations and they’re not going to be playing in the Champions Cup semi-finals, what does that mean for them all?

Do you get to a scenario where rather than being excited about that letter coming through your door or email into your inbox telling you that you have been selected for the Lions, with all the adulation and benefits that come with that, instead, you get your shoulder or knee fixed, have a full 10 weeks off, and start next season in a World Cup cycle ready to go. There are some incredibly tough decisions coming up not just for Gatland, but also for the players.

I remember the summer of 2002 there was nothing on. God, you felt revived from having a full summer off. Comparing that to when I went on the Lions tour the year before, then arriving back into a training camp, having three weeks’ holiday off where all I did was sleep because I was knackered, and then starting the season at full pace. There is a lot to be said for recharging the batteries.

Would players really give up going on a Lions tour? I think they possibly might. If it’s your last tour given your age, you might give it a blast. Everyone though will have hard, personal choices to make, not just Warren.

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