England's image hit by Gatland's comments
Eighteen months on and the England rugby team is still being haunted by a scandal-ridden 2011 World Cup campaign dogged by dwarf-throwing, ferry-jumping and acute royal embarrassment.
Under new coach and strict disciplinarian Stuart Lancaster, England have been working hard to improve their reputation following the tournament in New Zealand that was a disaster on and off the pitch.
That image drive received a blow on Tuesday when British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland suggested that picking too many England players for the tour to Australia could put extra pressure on the squad because they attract too much media focus and could create a “circus.”
The comments have earned a stern rebuke from England.
“English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride,” said Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont, who captained the touring team in 1980. “Wearing the Lions shirt, whether captain or player is something that all English players take very seriously. This will undoubtedly continue for those that get picked this time.”
With a nod to Lancaster’s PR campaign since the 2011 World Cup, Beaumont added: “It is well documented the strong culture and sense of responsibility on and off the pitch that this England team possesses. Those fortunate enough to get picked will of course take those attributes Down Under.”
England are currently the form team in the northern hemisphere, leading the Six Nations with two wins from two and still buoyed by a memorable win over New Zealand in December. As it stands, they should provide plenty of players for Lions duty this summer.
Having overhauled the squad with young and hungry players such as Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury, Lancaster has also been desperate to imbue a sense of pride in playing for England.
Tour de France and Olympic cycling champion Bradley Wiggins, England cricket captain Andrew Strauss and England rugby league captain Jamie Peacock are among those to have addressed the squad to speak about what it means to represent your country, while Lancaster dropped scrumhalf Danny Care from the elite squad for a spell following a series of alcohol-fuelled misdemeanours.
Gatland still suspects that the old gripes against the English still persist.
“English players are targeted by other countries,” he said in an interview with the London Evening Standard. “They are not always the most popular with other countries because of the history. People like having a pop at them. It’s just being aware of potential issues that may arise.
“We all know what happened with England at the World Cup and the circus that was created.”
England were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage at that tournament — their worst performance since 1999 — but it was their players’ actions off the pitch that made the headlines.
Mike Tindall, who had only recently married Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter, was photographed in a compromising situation with a woman while on a boozy night out with teammates.
Some England players were also pictured taking part in a dwarf-throwing contest at a bar, three players were picked out for allegedly harassing a female Dunedin hotel worker and centre Manu Tuilagi was detained by police for jumping off a ferry the day after England were eliminated by France.
Things are very different under Lancaster, whose captain — Chris Robshaw — appears to be the model of integrity and discipline.
Gatland would likely have discussed his comments with the England squad on Tuesday, as he had already planned to visit their training base as part of his Lions duties. He is concentrating on the Lions, temporarily relinquishing his full-time job as Wales coach.
Former England coach Brian Moore said he “can’t fathom” Gatland’s comments, adding they were “bizarre and largely unfounded.”
“If he means those comments, I question his sanity and suitability,” Moore said in a Twitter post. “If he doesn’t, I question their suitability and purpose.”
The Lions squad is named on April 30.