The forthcoming British & Irish Lions tour was the elephant in the room at the RBS 6 Nations launch among the captains. Greig Laidlaw, Alun Wyn Jones, Dylan Hartley and Rory Best did their best to sidestep questions over their respective chances of making the plane to New Zealand to the extent that even contemplating a question over the Lions was regarded, in Orwellian terms, as a ‘thoughtcrime’.
The coaches also had a firm stance on June and July’s tour. Take Rob Howley – Wales’ interim coach – who will be part of Warren Gatland’s backroom staff in New Zealand come June. When asked about the tour and whether it becomes a distraction during the Six Nations, he dodged it with all the elusiveness of his scrum-half play in his former playing life. “The five-letter word doesn’t come into it,” he responded without even mentioning the tabooed Lions.
Alun Wyn Jones, Howley’s captain for the championship, is regarded as one of the front-runners to skipper the Lions. But Jones, who has been on the last two series and won six Test caps in the process, warned over the perils of having one eye on the future rather than both on the Six Nations.
“You hope people have that ambition [to play for the Lions] but you hope they bury it within themselves to perform in the red jersey we have,” Jones said. “That could bring the best out in some, but it also puts the pressure on others. They need to concentrate on what they’re doing in this time before they look far beyond that.”
Scotland’s Vern Cotter hopes good performances from his players in the championship will see them force their way into Gatland’s thoughts, with the squad set to be named on April 19, but Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has firmly parked any thoughts of places being on the line with regards to his hopefuls.
Rory Best, Greig Laidlaw, Dylan Hartley and Alun Wyn Jones will all hope to feature on the British & Irish Lions tour in June. AFP / BEN STANSALL
“That [Lions] is something that’s extraneous to us,” Schmidt said. “We’re just focusing on what we need to do.” Rory Best, another favourite to captain the Lions, warned his side that their collective focus has to be on their first championship game against Scotland and not on potential future honours.
For England coach Eddie Jones, he has already notified his side of the dangers of losing focus in a Lions year.
“Players get swayed about worrying about their own performance more than the team performance and that is something we are attempting to address,” Jones said. “It’s about the focus on playing well.
“We want our team to play so well during the Six Nations that when the Lions is announced we want the majority in that squad.
“We want our players to play for the Lions but it’s a consequence of playing well for us. I don’t think that’s a major motivational factor apart from a few individuals who may look to put their own performance above others.”
Jones’ captain Dylan Hartley said his focus was solely on England, toeing the party line of taking it all one game at a time.
The Lions will still be a major subplot to the championship, there is no ignoring it. But Jones’ message to those who may run the risk of being distracted was succinct: “I won’t pick them, mate.”
It was simple, and blunt to the point — focus on the Lions and risk losing your place in the national side.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY