It is been a tough month for all the home nations but hope springs eternal in a British and Irish Lions year. Those beginning to wonder if Australia can be beaten over three Tests next summer would certainly have enjoyed Warren Gatland's upbeat battle cry from inside the walls of Cardiff Castle on Wednesday. Gatland's view is that recent results are strictly relative and he remains "excited' by the "real strength" available to him in several positions.
This may come as a slight surprise to the Welsh public, who would prefer Gatland to be concentrating all his efforts on defeating the Wallabies this Saturday. As the Lions' commander-in-chief, however, the New Zealander can afford a slightly longer-term perspective. Nothing to date has altered his opinion about the potential British and Irish talent pool available to him and one or two intriguing names are already in his notebook.
The Ulster wing Craig Gilroy, for one, is among his list of possible bolters following the former's sharp debut try against Argentina but the issue of the Lions captaincy remains as tangled as ever. Previous skippers Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll have been struggling with injury, as has Wales's Sam Warburton, and Gatland admits he is considering appointing a tour captain who might not do the job in the Test matches. Leinster's Jamie Heaslip was mentioned in dispatches but England's Chris Robshaw is far from a certainty even to make the squad.
The problem for Robshaw is that Gatland believes a genuine openside flanker will be required to counter the breakdown threat of David Pocock and his Wallaby understudy Michael Hooper. With the No6 jersey already being chased by Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Tom Croft, it seems the Harlequins flanker needs a huge game this weekend opposite New Zealand's Richie McCaw to alter the management's thinking. "I think at the moment you need genuine sevens going to Australia," said Gatland. "It's not just Pocock, it's Hooper and Liam Gill as well. The English thing is interesting. I feel sometimes they struggle for a genuine seven."
Warburton, fitness-permitting, remains the likeliest candidate but much will depend how Wales go in this season's Six Nations championship. "It's all about form," stressed Gatland, speaking at the launch of the adidas shirt the Lions will be wearing in Australia. "If that means picking what we think is the best Test team and leaving the captain out because someone is playing better I'm more than comfortable with that.
"You could pick an experienced player and say: 'You might be tour captain but there's a chance you might not be good enough to be selected for the Tests.' We're all well aware there have been tour captains who, in the past, weren't good enough to be in the Test side. It's a professional game and we've got to represent the Lions in the best way we can. Maybe I should pick five captains. Once you name one, there are two or three guys in the same position who aren't happy because their chances have almost gone."
Gatland's team of assistant coaches will be announced in Edinburgh on 12 December and the process of sifting names will also begin in earnest next month. The Lions hierarchy will then head out to Australia for a tactical recce in January before settling back down to the serious business of squad selection. "I sat down with some key personnel to look at what a pre-autumn squad would look like and I'll do that again post-autumn," said Gatland. "Then we will do a pre-Six Nations list, one in the middle and then one post-Six Nations before we pick the final squad.
"Nothing is crystallised at the moment. The obvious example is Craig Gilroy who was outstanding last weekend. He has put himself into contention. You aren't going to pick a Lions team based on one performance, but he has made us sit up and take a bit of notice."
Candidates based in France, however, may find themselves disadvantaged, with Gatland unconvinced about the fitness levels of Top 14 players. "At the weekend Mike Phillips was blowing after 52 minutes … we had to get him off. That's something we have to look at. Are they physically in the best shape to compete at the highest level, even though they might be playing quite well in France?"
Gatland, either way, will not be panicking even if England and Wales get blown away once more this weekend. "The teams from the Rugby Championship have been together for a number of weeks and have come in a little bit sharper, which has taken our home unions time to get up to speed with. From a coaching perspective those things can be rectified." Much, in other words, can change between now and early July.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Nigel Wilson