Dylan Hartley's poor form is not a worry, insists Lions coach Warren Gatland
16 February 2017 • 10:00pm
Warren Gatland, the British and Irish Lions head coach, claims to be unconcerned by England captain Dylan Hartley’s indifferent start to the RBS Six Nations Championship. After serving a six-week suspension for striking Sean O’Brien, the Leinster flanker and a potential Lions team-mate, Hartley has flattered to deceive against France and Wales. In each match, he was the first England player replaced, on 54 and 44 minutes, for Jamie George. Eddie Jones, the England coach, later revealed that the substitutions were based on Hartley’s “bounce” time from making a tackle. Gatland, who will come into England’s training camp on March 1, believes a lack of fitness and form is understandable given Hartley’s lack of game time heading into the championship. That, however, will not affect the New Zealand-born hooker’s Lions selection chances, even if he is replaced as a starter by George against Italy next week.
“He has not done anything wrong in this campaign so far and he is still getting up to game speed,” Gatland said. “It is hard to have six weeks off and a break and come into Test match rugby. He has done OK and he has got the first game under his belt. It was a proper Test match [against Wales] and Eddie felt he needed to make changes when he did and get some fresh legs on to the pitch quite early. “Now he has the chance to get some extra conditioning. I have not spoken to Eddie about Dylan but that’s what he may be looking to do. Whether Jamie starts the next game, and there’s been speculation about that, which could give Dylan an opportunity to get in a couple of good weeks of conditioning for later in the tournament.”
Hartley’s poor form is very much the exception to the rule after an “encouraging” opening two rounds. In the second and back row, Gatland is particularly spoilt for choice and he confirmed that “there are going to be some quality players that potentially miss out”.
Two players who have particularly impressed Gatland are Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg – despite “a couple of missed tackles” against France – and Sam Warburton, his captain from the 2-1 series victory against Australia in 2013. “In potentially crappy weather conditions in NZ you need someone who can get over the ball, compete and slow things down and Sam is able to do that,” Gatland said. “I think he has been outstanding in the first couple of games in terms of the way that he has played and competed and brought a physicality.” Gatland has deliberately not spoken to his assistant coaches – Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell, England forwards coach Steve Borthwick or Wales interim head coach Rob Howley – regarding selection. Having attended the Scotland v Ireland, Italy v Wales, Wales v England and France v Scotland fixtures, he says he remains open-minded.
Nevertheless the cogs are beginning to whir as he ponders the permutations for his likely 37-man squad. Versatility, in that regard, suddenly becomes a valuable asset. “Potentially that is going to be important for us,” Gatland said. “Someone like Iain Henderson as well being able to cover second row, back row. There is some versatility in terms of the back row and obviously Elliot [Daly] – he has got some qualities – he can play on the wing, full-back, he has got a big boot on him in terms of goal-kicking. He has done well at centre and he is quick.” With moves afoot to reduce the Lions tour from 10 to eight games in a shake-up of the global calendar, Gatland reiterated his fears that the Lions are an endangered species that needs to be protected.
“The biggest issue we have at the moment is not about the number of games, it’s about preparation,” Gatland said. “So if you cut the Lions down from 10 games to eight games and we still turn up in New Zealand with no training in the UK or Ireland as a full squad, and limited time in New Zealand before the first match, well, what have you actually achieved? I don’t think you’ve actually achieved anything. I think it is an incredibly special brand, it needs to be protected, it should be something we savour.”