Another away win for England on the final day of the Six Nations would have confirmed that Eddie Jones’s players were the only team in the championship able to consistently deliver on foreign soil.
However, the manner of the 13-9 defeat against Ireland in Dublin, with England unable to impose themselves in the face of ferocious defence, has left players such as Courtney Lawes, Mike Brown, Dylan Hartley, George Ford, Joe Marler, Ben Youngs and Anthony Watson worrying about their chances of making the Lions tour.
Sam Warburton, who led the Lions to a Test series triumph in Australia in 2013, is battling with Wales team-mate Alun Wyn Jones to captain the squad, with Owen Farrell an outside bet. Wyn Jones is to have a scan this week on his injured shoulder which could have implications for his tour place.
“Sam has had a terrific Six Nations, he has played really well and I am really pleased for him,” Gatland told the BBC. “He’s one of the guys potentially in contention [to lead the squad]. There are probably half a dozen players.”
Jones is adamant England will supply at least 15 players to the Lions squad. Jonathan Joseph, Farrell, Maro Itoje, Dan Cole and Mako and Billy Vunipola are certain to go but the head coach’s other predictions are not as secure.
Gatland has a very difficult job choosing his three hookers. Jamie George, England’s reserve in the position, is the most gifted available but he has to wait his turn at Test level behind Hartley, who has led his country to successive Six Nations titles. Ireland’s Rory Best improved his chance of touring on Saturday, while Ken Owens, of Wales, is another contender.
At full-back, Brown has been solid and aggressive but all too often fails to link with his fellow backs, putting him behind Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny, of Wales, whose goal kicking helps his cause. To complicate matters. Liam Williams, the Saracens-bound Wales wing, could also go as a full-back.
The back row is another selection headache, with Maro Itoje’s use at No6 by England giving Gatland the option of naming him there or at lock.
Justin Tipuric, of Wales, is the leading open side flanker but Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and England’s James Haskell offer a more physical threat, while Taulupe Faletau and Jamie Heaslip are up against Billy Vunipola at No8. Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson were impressive for Ireland and also come into the back row discussion along with ex-England captain Chris Robshaw plus Warburton.
With his best players on Lions duty, England’s three-Test tour of Argentina this summer will allow Jones to discover if he really has identified the three players he needs in every position to mount a successful bid to win the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
After 14 months under his command, England have moved up from eighth in the world rankings to No2.
As the defeat in Dublin showed, however, England are a work in progress. Under intense pressure in difficult conditions, basic handling mistakes were made, while errors of judgment led to damaging penalties.
Jones said: “We have to accept we weren’t good enough. We will learn from it. We are going to have more setbacks as we go to the World Cup. How many teams have a 90 per cent winning record at Test level? Not too many, the All Blacks are the only ones and we have been doing that since the last World Cup.”
Lock Joe Launchbury will return to the Aviva Stadium in two weeks’ time when he leads his Wasps side against Leinster in the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup, with key Ireland players in the opposition ranks.
Launchbury is being philosophical about the lost double Slam chance and said: “We have to use how we felt. It is quite a mixed feeling, we are very disappointed to lose and obviously let the Grand Slam go and slip through our fingers.
“But I think we have to be happy with a lot of the work we have done. We are back-to-back Six Nations championship winners and that is something not to be sniffed at and something we are very proud of.”