Warren Gatland comments give hope to Lions hopefuls Zebo, Goode and Simmonds
"We'll be keeping an eye on a number of players."
Warren Gatland will go down as one of the legendary British & Irish Lions figures, but he has the chance of doing something incredibly special in South Africa, next summer.
Having been assistant coach to Ian McGeechan on the 2009 tour to South Africa, the Kiwi led the Lions to a series win over Australia, in 2013, and a draw with New Zealand, four years later. Should he mastermind a series win over the world champion Springboks, he could happily retire back in Waikato knowing he has achieved something unrivalled.
We are still eight months from that tour taking place, and it will hopefully be able to go ahead - all things Covid considered - in some capacity and with fans in attendance. Gatland is starting to ramp up his scouting for the tour and he explains his mind-set when looking at the next few months of rugby.
"It's such a long way out. Look, the November games are coming up and you'll kind of look at that [but] it's not competition and sometimes teams and coaches are looking at different combinations and trying different things out, and trying to get their game-plans right because it's a build-up to the Six Nations. That's where it really matters.
"That's when points are at stake and teams are performing at home and, more importantly for me, often, it's how you perform away from home. Because that's what we have to do on tour.
"But the yardstick for me would be the Six Nations and then there's big matches, domestically or in Europe, that have some significance."
There are several shop windows then, so to speak, but some have glitzier displays and better content and will hold the attention of Gatland and his coaching staff a beat longer.
Past performances on Lions tours, Six Nations form, European Cup form, league form and the Autumn Nations Cup. That looks to be the order of magnitude in Gatland's mind, so all is not lost for players not getting selected for their countries.
At present, Simon Zebo, Alex Goode and both Joe and Sam Simmonds are among Europe's form players but all four will be on the outside looking in during the Autumn Nations Cup.
While the IRFU made an exception for Johnny Sexton when he played in France, similar moves to Racing 92 saw Zebo and Donnacha Ryan cut out of the national team, under Joe Schmidt and now Andy Farrell. Asked about the possibility of Zebo being brought into the fold, on Thursday, Farrell said:
"You know the answer to this. I’ve always got to think of what’s the right thing to do for Irish rugby in the here and now and the long term. That’s the reason that we’ve always gone down the route of not looking outside of Ireland, so we’re protecting Irish rugby."
While those comments will not have come as a jarring surprise to Zebo, his ears will surely perk up over Gatland's take on national team outsiders and his 2021 Lions squad.
Zebo had another solid season with Racing as they reached the Champions Cup final against Exeter. They were in decent shape in the Top 14, too, but French authorities wrapped up that league, back in May, without crowning a champion (due to the Covid-19 pandemic). The former Munster star scored two tries for his club in a stunning personal performance, but Exeter pipped him to a first ever European title.
Joe and Sam Simmonds were excellent for that double-winning Exeter side - with Joe being named European Player of the Year - but both brothers (like Goode) are currently out of the England picture with Eddie Jones.
Asked if the Simmonds brothers and other national team outsiders would still be in the Lions selection mix, Gatland said, "Obviously, if they are playing as well as they have been this year."
"Look," Gatland added, "we're not against picking players who are not in their international teams. The thing about England is, just because players aren't in with you at the moment, that doesn't mean they won't be in for the Six Nations. Eddie does have a huge about of depth and quality options to be able to pick from.
"When you look at England as a base, there are some players that may not be in their squad that we may consider. We've spoken about players like that in the past.
"As I've said from the start, selection is just a matter of opinion and that's all it is. I look at the Wales squad that was selected a few weeks ago and there are probably a few players that I thought were unlucky to miss out, and a couple in the squad that I would not have picked."
Such comments will give hope, then, to the likes of Joe and Sam Simmonds, Goode, Zebo, Steff Evans, Richie Gray, Taine Basham and 2017 tourists such as Jack McGrath, Anthony Watson and Courtney Lawes.
As Gatland says, the beauty of the Lions is that there is no forward planning or seeds to sow. It is all about selecting the best squad to get the job done.
Warren Gatland was speaking on behalf of Canterbury at the launch of the British & Irish Lions Pro jersey available at Canterbury.com
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