Everyone’s favourite fantasy rugby exercise, The British and Irish Lions, kicks off in a major way tomorrow when coach Warren Gatland announces his squad. Fittingly, here at the Scottish Rugby Blog we are bringing up the rear in style.
I’m on record as loving the Quixotic nature of the Lions, and although it is now a fearsomely commercial beast, the Lions enterprise is still at it’s heart a very pure form of sport. That is probably why we all enjoy it so much. But it can also be hugely frustrating, especially when one of our favourites is overlooked.
The mild fillip of the Six Nations has raised Scottish hopes that perhaps some of our guys can mix it with the big boys, but there is plenty of chatter – the sort of chatter all non-Welsh lions fans worry about – about record-breaking amounts of Welsh players in the squad, about Irish players outnumbering their Scottish and English conquerors.
I can’t predict it, no-one can. But here are a few thoughts.
The Front-Row Union
Ryan Grant played Adam Jones off the park two weeks ago almost everywhere except the scrums (that was a stalemate) and is peaking at precisely the right moment. Healy and Jenkins are his main rivals and neither have covered themselves in glory but are seen as the safe choices. If Grant does not at least get a shot to tour it would be a travesty; with Euan Murray’s glory pretty faded these days it would be likely Grant is the only serious contender. Ross Ford and Geoff Cross had a few mentions late in the Six Nations but their chances faded the second the sign above the Murrayfield changing room switched back from “Scotland” to “Edinburgh”.
Paul O’Connell is back from rugby limbo and alongside Alun Wyn Jones and the odd English lock, Richie Gray’s chances have long been talked up. If they only took say 4 second rows, then suddenly Gray could well be a surprise cut from everyone’s list of definite tourists. He didn’t do enough in the Six Nations, then he got injured. If O’Connell didn’t reappear then he was a cert. Now, I’m not so sure. Taking him could even be a risk, though I have no doubt he has the potential to thrive. Kellock, Hines and Hamilton will all have been considered at some point but may have drifted off radar. Hines could still make a surprise venture if he can get out of France alive, for a second time.
The $64,000 Question
The captain is widely assumed to be Sam Warburton, but whether or not that sets off a chain reaction of back-row selection shuffles that results in Chris Robshaw and/or Kelly Brown being popped off the back of the bus and left at home remains to be seen. The issue is who to take, with about 4-5 very good players on both flanks, and enough versatility amongst them to ensure that they could also clog up the Number 8 selection worries where there is less choice (Faletau, Johnnie Beattie, Heaslip). If I was Gatland, the back row would be the one causing me headaches at tonight’s final selection meeting.
Spare also a thought for Ross Rennie, who was well on his way to be a big part of this debate before a big injury killed his momentum.
The Old (and Young) Guys in Midfield
AKA Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll, O’Driscoll is a highly likely candidate given the dearth of world-class centres and could earn a glorious swansong if he could repeat 2009’s stellar partnership with Jamie Roberts. Wilkinson refuses to retire but has still been imperious for Toulon. He’s right though in suggesting Gatland looks to the future. Unfortunately that means that the furiously talented James Hook will also probably be overlooked as Gatland has never quite found a use for him. Matt Scott could be one for the future, but as 10-13 has long been Scotland’s problem area I don’t need to tell you we won’t see any Lions there this time out, unless Greig Laidlaw is brought to cover 10 as well as 9 – a possibility. If he does go we can only hope he has a better tour than Mike Blair four years ago.
The Back Three
I’ve already talked up Stuart Hogg’s chances over on MSN, and while the bookies put Tim Visser on the plane for his scoring weight of numbers, Sean Maitland now strikes me as the more useful tourist. Useful across a number of positions, serious gas, familiar with the Aussies – he once scored four against the Brumbies and is Quade Cooper’s cousin – and good in defence. Gatland will want form guys, and of those two Maitland has that and is playing at a higher intensity level. Whether anyone gets a look past Gatland’s Welsh back three on tour is anyone’s guess. They’ll have to earn it.
Who then from Scotland could be on the plane tomorrow, and who will not?
I think Grant, Hogg, and Maitland will go. I think Laidlaw and Gray might, and I think Brown will miss out despite offering excellent credentials. Hogg is the only one I am truly sure of, but only Warren Gatland and his cabal truly know.
The rest of us wait for the sleepless night to pass that we may be enlightened, frustrated or delightedcome 11am tomorrow.