With the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad due to be announced this week, here’s the legally mandated (and due to be proven massively inaccurate?) Lions prediction post.
Most of the squads published by pundits in the (UK) national press show a gloomy outlook for Scottish Lions fans. Despite our best Six Nations tournament in many years, Scotland could be on the receiving end of a perfect selectorial storm comprising the following problems:
- Ridiculous competition in many positions. England alone could probably provide 4 test quality locks to the touring party, likewise Ireland 4 back rows.
- The strongest Scottish attack in years being suited to the way Scotland play, not Warrenball. With a different coaching setup the approach might be different.
- Opponents who had off days against Scotland then conspiring to play well again in the sort of circumstances that emulate the Lions test environment.
- Scottish players playing poorly in the sort of circumstances that emulate the Lions test environment ie away games at Twickenham and Saracens, looking unable to cope against well-drilled skillful teams.
- Injuries to players who were definitely being talked about previously.
- Not having a Scottish voice in selection meetings – there is no word as to whether anyone from the Scotland camp will be invited to take part after the double snub to the tour from Townsend and O’Halloran. Surely Vern Cotter can pop in on his way to France?
That doesn’t mean I don’t think any Scots should or will travel. But despite a (mostly) happy Six Nations experience, pickings could be slim and I just hope there is more than one, or it won’t be a fun tour for Hoggy-No-Mates.
Definite: Stuart Hogg
There’s only one who is a nailed on cert. Stuart Hogg will tour. If Warren Gatland doesn’t pick him, we should just forget about it and form The New Barbarians™. He’s the most threatening fullback in attack across any of the home nations, and has worked hard on his high ball and defensive work. He’s toured before, he kicks goals a bit, his clearance kick range is an asset and there’s enough flexibility there at potentially centre or standoff to make him useful in a touring side, but he should really be pushing for a test spot. If you run back the highlights reel in your mind, winning Lions games have been created by inspirational moments in attack – which secures Hogg’s place. There are other competitors at fullback, but few are in the form he is.
Probable: Sean Maitland, Richie Gray, Hamish Watson, Tommy Seymour
These are the players who should feel hard done by if they don’t go, and who should play some part in the tour possibly as call-ups.
Sean Maitland is in fine form for Saracens and only a miracle game from Tim Visser kept him out of the latter Six Nations games. He along with Richie Gray share the benefit of having gone on tour before. Being a kiwi with Super Rugby experience probably won’t hurt either. Both he and Gray are in better form now than when they toured in 2013.
Richie is at the dynamic end of the locking spectrum along with Maro Itoje which is probably helpful for him as there are far more at the “workhorse” end. Gray’s recent injury keeping him out of Toulouse’s Quarter Final could hurt his chances though. But he was to that point in some of the best form of his life, matching his brother in the stats but reviving the ball-carrying, offloading game that made him stand out at the start of his career.
As we mentioned on recent podcasts, Hamish Watson playing for Edinburgh could well hurt his chances. Sam Warburton’s recent injury will raise doubts and the need for a backup 7. Watson has been in great form since last year and beyond and the fact he outshone Tipuric at Murrayfield could help, but Tipuric and Warburton are his key competitors if (Welsh coach) Gatland wants a proper 7. If he doesn’t then he’ll take Haskell.
Which just leaves Tommy Seymour, who was probably the form winger going in to the Six Nations but had a quiet tournament compared to his Glasgow form. I still think his aerial skills and link with Hogg give him sufficient class to get a spot on the plane but the waters have been muddied slightly by the resurgence of Maitland and players like Saracens team mate Chris Ashton.
What Might Have Been: Jonny Gray, Alex Dunbar, Fraser Brown
These are the guys who before the Six Nations would have been near certs or were at least being talked about, but the simple fact is that in the key games they’ve underperformed. They will be lucky if they get a call-up because of injury (or Dylan Hartley getting banned).
Jonny Gray was nailed on at the start of the Six Nations after some titanic performances for the Warriors, but he was outshone by his brother during the tournament and while he’s undeniably a hard worker, he needed to show more impact. It doesn’t help that he’s in the most competitive position that Gatland has to pick from; even the midweek team will have a monstrously good second row. He might be forgiven the Saracens game which he missed most of due to Owen Farrell’s elbow, and he might be given a place for the future like Richie was, but it’s unlikely. The learning curve in New Zealand will be horribly steep.
Alex Dunbar contributed massively to the turnover count in the Scottish defence and was solid as a rock – except against England. There’s no doubting he’s a class act but Gatland said before that the Twickenham performance was a crucial test and too many flunked it. If you think Twickenham is tough, try Eden Park. Gatland loves a boshing centre and if Farrell has to play at 10 there could be space for one which makes Dunbar a possibly injury call-up.
Fraser Brown falls into a similar category: he had a solid season, building nicely and some standout club performances (more than Dunbar) but a headless yellow card at Twickenham probably did for his chances. Cool heads are required but it could come down to a shootout between Brown and Hartley for a 3rd backup spot, and even then it will more likely be Rory Best, Jamie George and Ken Owens, who had a good tournament.
The injured fallen are also worth a mention here: Huw Jones, John Hardie, WP Nel and Al Dickinson would all have been on Gatland’s radar at the start of the year.
The Eagles Reunite: Greig Laidlaw, Ross Ford, John Barclay, Finn Russell
This batch have too much class in their positions to see them as anything but midweek selections. In a crowded position, the only way Scotland get a back row on the tour is surely as an out and out 7. Greig Laidlaw‘s leadership counts in his favour; John Barclay‘s leadership in the England game goes against him. Ross Ford continues to be the 100+ cap, Test Lion that barely gets a mention in dispatches in discussions like these.
And then we come to Finn Russell, who after out Dan Cartering Dan Carter was the talk of the town.
Finn turned in wildly schizophrenic performances against England and Saracens. He has an outside chance of a touring party place but he’s making far too many unforced errors from the boot and with ball in hand to be reliable against unforgiving New Zealand sides. Gatland will likely take 3 standoffs – Farrell, Sexton and AN Other (Faz by his own admission is a 10). Finn could have been AN Other ahead of both George Ford or Dan Biggar but at the moment he is less reliable than either even if he is more creative. There could be an interesting 3rd choice here but it is unlikely to be Finn.
The Bolter: Duncan Taylor
He’s back fit, and earned a Man of the Match award last weekend at Wembley. He looks lively at the moment and is defensively in tune with his Saracens teammates who will be well represented on the tour – which makes him un-Scottish enough for selection. He’s a a threat going forward, has great hands, is a powerful runner and can play centre, wing or fullback. Versatility can go against a guy like Chris Paterson over a career but SuperDunc is perfect for a one-off touring team where you need it, and perfect as a 23 for a flexible solution in physical test matches.
A swiss army knife of a player operating at the highest level; you can’t watch Saracens take apart Bath, Glasgow and Harlequins on three consecutive weekends and say they aren’t playing with test match intensity and precision. Scotland missed him badly in the Six Nations where the backs on the bench weren’t able to provide enough impact. If he doesn’t tour, it’s Toony’s gain. But if I were Gatland, I’d take a long hard look.
Who I’d take: Duncan Taylor, Hamish Watson, Tommy Seymour, Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray
Who I think will go: Hogg, Maitland, Seymour (plus perhaps Watson, Dunbar, a Gray or Brown as injury call-ups later on).