CARDIFF — British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland will travel to Australia next year buoyed by high Anglo-Irish hopes after watching his Wales side once again being edged out by the Wallabies at the weekend.
At the same time as Kurtley Beale crossed for the last-gasp try that condemned Wales to a seventh consecutive defeat, and the third pool of International Rugby Board (IRB) seeds for the 2015 World Cup draw, England were putting world champions New Zealand to the sword.
The English team’s stunning 38-21 victory over the All Blacks, teamed with Ireland’s 46-22 thrashing of Argentina, were the standout results of the November international window, according to Gatland.
"There’s no one pencilled in. There are some people we’ve been keeping an eye on," Gatland said after watching his team lose 14-12 at the Millennium Stadium.
"England winning (against the All Blacks) was a great result for them. We’ll need a good look at the game.
"And I thought the Ireland performance against Argentina was excellent last week. A few players put their hands up from that."
But Gatland warned that there was a lot of rugby still to play before any selections were made for the 35-man squad for the four-yearly tour, the last of which was lost 2-1 in South Africa in 2009.
"The autumn is just an indication and then you see what happens in the next couple of months, and the Six Nations becomes very important," he said.
The showcase tournament for Europe’s leading six countries was crucial "not just for players performing but also from a confidence level, and players coming from teams that are doing well in key positions. That will have a bearing on selection."
Australia’s Kiwi coach, Robbie Deans, was in no doubt that Gatland would be up for the Lions.
"He was part of the coaching group in 2009 when the Lions toured South Africa, so he has got some runs on the board," Deans said of Gatland, a former Waikato hooker who played 17 times for the All Blacks but never in a Test.
"He understands the importance and the history of the Lions — it is a role he will take very seriously and he will want to be successful.
"We will prepare and focus on what we need to do, to come together and perform as best we can, but I am sure you will see a really united group arriving on these shores. It’s going to be a fantastic series," Deans said.
"The Lions series is going to be huge. These blokes will have some respite, a good break, but I’m sure that in the back of their minds it’s looming."
Next year’s British and Irish Lions tour to Australia will be nothing but gruelling, the 35-strong squad expected to come together in a short space of time before playing six games and three Tests. The tour actually kicks off in Hong Kong on June 1 against the Barbarians, before the Lions head to Australia.
Gatland will take a back seat from his main Wales coaching job during the Six Nations in a bid to scout for potential players to fill the red Lions jersey.
Having already fired out warnings to his own squad of Welsh players about aptitude and fitness, Gatland seems sure to prove a hard taskmaster.
Deans said that the fact Australia had now played Wales six times in a year would not affect the Lions tour.
"It’s a totally different team and a totally different coaching team," Deans said.
"They’ll hatch fresh plans and throw everything at us, as we will (at) them."