British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland says he'd happily field an entire XV of England players in the first Test against Australia if they're the best available.
Gatland is trying to defuse a row caused by remarks in the London Evening Standard saying too many England players could lead to the kind of media "circus" that derailed their 2011 World Cup campaign in the coach's native New Zealand.
The 49-year-old Gatland's comments were especially inflammatory as England, who beat the world champion All Blacks in December, are currently the form team in the Six Nations where they are the only side to have won both their opening two matches.
And they appeared to take no account of the lack of negative headlines attached to England since coach Stuart Lancaster replaced Martin Johnson last year following a World Cup where the side were better known for their off-field drinking exploits than the quality of their rugby.
But former Ireland boss Gatland, currently on sabbatical from his post as Wales coach in order to guide the Lions, was adamant there would be no bias against England players.
"I am extremely disappointed that anybody should try to misinterpret what I said and try to say that will count against English players, that's absolute bulls***," he told the Daily Telegraph.
"The last thing I would ever do is limit the number of English players. There is absolutely no limit to the number of any players from any nation we will pick if they are worthy of a place on the tour.
"I would happily pick 15 English players in the first Test at Brisbane if I thought they were the best 15 players for the job.
"The only consideration for a Lions coach is to get the best 15 on the park to do the job. That's paramount, I'm not remotely bothered which country they come from.
"When I first started at Wales I remember I once picked 13 Ospreys for one of my early Tests in charge."
Gatland had told the Standard "the best players will be selected", but "it's just being aware of potential issues that may arise".
Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont, himself a former England and Lions captain, took a dim view of Gatland's remarks as quoted by the Standard and highlighted the changes that had taken place under Lancaster.
"English players have always represented the Lions with enormous pride," Beaumont said.
"It is well documented the strong culture and sense of responsibility on and off the pitch that this England team possesses. Those fortunate enough to get picked will of course take those attributes Down Under."
The Lions, who haven't won a series since England great Johnson led them on their 1997 tour of South Africa, face Australia in the first of three Tests in Brisbane on June 22.
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