Warren Gatland says England captain Dylan Hartley remains firmly in his thoughts for Lions selection.
Gatland has attended four matches during the opening two rounds of the RBS 6 Nations and has been encouraged by the competitiveness and attacking intent shown by the home unions, with the Kiwi namechecking Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg and England wing Elliot Daly.
Among the big names yet to fire though is Dylan Hartley as the England captain continues to gain match fitness after serving his latest ban, as he lasted just 46 minutes of the victory over Wales.
Gatland is refusing to discount the hooker and previous Lions captaincy contender from his thoughts, however.
“He has been out for quite a while and he did well in the first game against France when you are pumped up and the adrenaline was going,” Gatland said.
“It was a pretty physical game against Wales so they made the change early. Now he has the chance to get some extra conditioning.
“He has not done anything wrong in this campaign so far and is still getting up to game speed. It’s hard to have six weeks off and a break and come into Test match rugby.”
Gatland confirmed that the ability to cover multiple positions will increase the chances of selection, but hinted that he has not been so impressed with Maro Itoje’s move from second to back row. “Maro has had a couple of games at flanker. Is he a better second row? He has done all right in the back row, but is he more potent or more dangerous as a second row?” Gatland said.
“It depends on how he plays over the next couple of weeks, whether he continues to play there and what happens when he goes back to Saracens.
“It does take a little bit of time to get up to speed when you are playing in the back row and he has obviously adjusted to it pretty well.”
Gatland insists fans should be consulted over the future of the Lions and questions whether self-interest is behind proposed changes to condense tours.
Reducing the number of fixtures from 10 to eight has been discussed by the game’s powerbrokers as part of negotiations over the new global season, which begins after the 2019 World Cup.
Gatland believes future tours must be retained in their existing format and even expanded to include more preparation time.
And with 20,000 to 25,000 supporters expected to travel to the home of the world champions for the three Tests in June and July, Gatland insists their opinions should be canvassed.
“On any decisions on future tours there’s a lot of people that need to be consulted,” said Gatland, speaking on behalf of Lions partners Land Rover.
“Who is making the decisions, potentially for Lions tours to be cut down on numbers? There are a lot of stakeholders, ex-players, the media, fans, sponsors who need to be consulted about the Lions and how you value it.
“What reason are the decisions being made for? Is it for personal interest? Is it for the betterment of the game and fulfilling the Lions as a tradition and an identity?
“The biggest issue we have at the moment is not about the number of games, it’s about preparation.
“If you cut the Lions to eight games and we still turn up in New Zealand with no training in the UK or Ireland as a full squad, and then have limited time in New Zealand before the first match, what have you actually achieved? You’ve not achieved anything.
“It’s an incredibly special brand and it needs to be protected. The potential for it to grow is enormous and it should be something we savour as a brand and an identity. And every four years we should do as much as we possibly can to promote the Lions and continue the history and the tradition that the Lions have.”
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