How Many Scottish Players Will Make the British & Irish Lions Tour?

The British & Irish Lions concept stands on the edge of an abyss. The abyss is not one caused by the global pandemic. The Lions have survived two world wars and will surely weather travel restrictions cause by a global pandemic. The abyss the Lions stand on is the relevance of the concept in Scotland.

The reason why the Lions have shuffled close to the abyss with each tour is not solely down to Warren Gatland, no matter what people might say. Scotland’s form has been sporadic over the last decade compared with other teams and Scottish based coaches have previously been unwilling or unable to sign up to tour.

Out of those factors the issues of form and Scottish representation on the coaching staff have been largely put to bed. Warren Gatland also has no vested interest in providing development opportunities to his own players and taking Townsend and Tandy on tour hardly smacks of an anti-Scottish bias.

There is an opportunity for the Lions to take a step back from the abyss and restore some interest in the concept in Scotland. The older generation still cling to the romanticism of bygone eras where Scottish representation in Test sides was guaranteed as well as regular coaches but they alone cannot sustain its relevance. There is another generation of fans who have grown up with little representation in the larger squad and no Scots in the Test squad at all. This generation is at best apathetic about the Lions and at times outright hostile. The last time a Scottish player started a Lions Test was 20 years ago when Tom Smith started all three Tests against Australia.

The problem for the Lions is that this apathetic and hostile generation are bringing up the next generation of fans. It’s hard to for a kid to get excited about the Lions when his parents are still raging about the way Ryan Grant was treated in 2013 or the fact Tommy Seymour was the top try scorer on tour in 2017 but didn’t play any part in the three Tests.

But should the future of the Lions in Scotland influence the coaches choices? Probably not. It’d be hypocritical to expect allowances to be made after at least two tours of accusing Warren Gatland of showing favouritism towards Welsh players. Plus, surely fans want players to be there on merit rather than a of a sense of charity or pity. If players are picked purely to appease Scottish fans they’re likely to spend most of the time holding tackle bags.

But what level of representation is “enough” for Scotland? In 2013 Scotland had three players selected in the initial squad and a fourth called up. In 2017, despite improvements in the national side, there was just two initial call ups and a third just before the tour began. Alan Dell and Finn Russell’s later call up was down to proximity rather than anything else so probably doesn’t count. On both tours only one player saw any time on the pitch for a Test when Richie Gray got 12 minutes in the final game.

If 2021 sees Scotland get similar levels of representation in the squad then the Lions won’t be able to give their shirts away let aone flog them for a tenner after the tour. The Lions will be an irrelevance in Scotland and clubs and fans would be right to question whether the money the SRU contributes outweighs the benefits returned.

So how many Scottish Lions does it take to bring the concept back from the edge of the abyss? Nine players in a squad of 36 represents an even quarter share but given Scotland’s final standing in the Six Nations and the performances of both pro teams in Europe that might be a big ask. 1997 is probably regarded as Scotland’s last great Lions tour and might point to what Scottish fans should reasonably expect come the announcement on May 6th.

In 1997 Scotland had five players called up to the initial squad with Tony Stanger a later addition. That might not seem much but of the five, three of those players were selected to start the first and second test with a fourth making the bench in the first test. That might have been higher had Doddie Weir not been taken out by the boot of Mpumalanga lock Marius Bosman earlier in the tour. What matters is not the number of Scottish players selected in the wider squad but the number in contention for a Test place. Scotland could have 10 players on tour but will it really matter if each Test team consists of English, Welsh and Irish players?

So to that end how many Scottish players can we reasonably expect to see pushing for places in the Lions Test squad?

Test Team Contenders

Hamish Watson: Hamish Watson’s main obstacle to a Lions starting spot is the sheer depth of competition for back row places in the Lions squad. It’s inconceivable that Watson should miss out on the squad altogether but he’ll have a fight on his hands nailing down the seven shirt. A lack of other Scottish contenders in the back row might hamper him in that he doesn’t come as part of an established combination so he’ll need to show he can quickly form bonds with others. The other challenge Watson faces is whether he offers enough versatility to be a useful bench option. He can cover across the back row but he’s potentially up against players who can do the same and play lock and vice versa.

Ali Price: If not Ali Price then who else? Price was the stand out home nation scrum half of this year’s Six Nations and may even have overshadowed Dupont in Scotland’s final game. However, Connor Murray has experience of previous Lions tours to draw on. Price should certainly make the squad and is capable of competing for a Test place but the final outcome will depend on how well he can respond to the pressure once he’s on tour.

Finn Russell: Jonny Sexton will be 36 when it comes to the Lions tour. If the tour goes ahead it’s a 9 game tour with little opportunity to call up replacements given the likely isolation periods involved on arrival in South Africa. That has to be too big an ask for a player of Sexton’s vintage with a long history of injuries. That leaves Biggar, Russell, Farrell and Ford in contention for fly half. Biggar will tour and Finn Russell’s chances will have improved significantly with Gregor Townsend on the coaching team. Ford is a decent fly half but England’s final standing will likely have done for him. Gatland has said that some players have money in the bank when it comes to experience but Farrell’s chances may depend on whether anyone else in the squad can cover fly half in an emergency…

Stuart Hogg: Stuart Hogg will be Lions starting full back. Other nations may champion their own contender but Hogg is demonstrably the form full back in the Northern Hemisphere. The fact he has shown he can cover fly half in an emergency might even see Owen Farrell struggle to make the plane given other options at fly half and inside centre are in better form.

Test Team Outsiders

Chris Harris: Chris Harris will make the Lions squad. He is clearly a player that Townsend and Tandy rate highly. His defensive qualities are unquestionable, and his attacking abilities are often overlooked. He is able to cut superb support and dummy lines which often go unnoticed. The only obstacle to Harris’s place in the Test team is the sheer number of other contenders for the 13 shirt. Harris’s ability to cover on the wing are likely to see him push for a bench slot at the very least.

Duhan van der Merwe: Tim Visser was recently doing the rounds claiming he was hard done by to not make the Lions squad in 2012. Visser certainly offered a lot in attack in 2012 but his defence and ability to compete for a high ball at the time was questionable. The same could be said of Duhan van der Merwe although his learning curve when it comes to defence is significantly steeper than Visser’s. Although his positioning is still a little off he has made huge improvements and it’s going to be impossible for Gatland and his coaches to overlook his attacking threat. If he can tighten up on the weaker areas of his game before the first Test he’ll be right in the mix.

Possible Dirt Trackers

Rory Sutherland: Scotland’s scrum was solid in the Six Nations and the only thing standing between Sutherland and a place in the Lions squad is the number of other contenders in the Welsh and Irish front rows with Cian Healy and Wyn Jones the front runners. Mako Vunipola is likely still in contention based on past glories and Ellis Genge has been touted as an outsider elsewhere. Injury may still see him ruled out but Sutherland can still make the squad as likely third choice.

Zander Fagerson: As with Sutherland, the main obstacle to Fagerson’s inclusion in the Lions squad is the other players in contention at tighthead. Tadgh Furlong and Tomas Francis are the likely first picks and so Fagerson’s chances rest on being third choice. Kyle Sinckler has experience of a Lions tour but the work Fagerson gets through around the park should put him in a strong position for a place in the squad. Fagerson also has youth on his side which may see him go given he may be around for up to a further two tours.

Jonny Gray: Jonny Gray’s all round game has improved and there’s now more to his game than a relentless ability to tackle everything put in front of him. However, does he offer enough to push ahead of Tadgh Beirne, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Adam Beard and Alun Wyn Jones? Itoje had a poor Six Nations from a discipline point of view but even the most ardent Scotland fan would be hard pressed to argue he shouldn’t tour and it was likely to be Itoje Gatland was referencing when he said some players would be picked based on previous rather than current form. Gray’s name is likely to come up in discussions but there’s a lot going against his inclusion in the squad.

Bolters

Jamie Ritchie: The backrow is a crowded field and Ritchie’s form over the Autumn dipped significantly till he was more sh*thouse than man. However, his final barnstorming performance against France showed what he is capable of and at 24 he’s another player who’s capable of making future tours should his form continue. The inclusion of Steve Tandy and Gregor Townsend on the coaching team have probably improved his chances and his ability to cover across the backrow as well as lock in an emergency should seen him considered ahead of someone like Tom Curry, regardless of what the English media might say.

Cameron Redpath: Redpath was incredibly unlucky not to play any further part in the Six Nations after his scintillating debut against England at Twickenham. The fact he was able to fit straight into the Scotland side and put in such a confident performance should see him in the mix and Tandy and Townsend will have the inside knowledge to push for his inclusion. He’s still only 21 and so there has to be a temptation to give him experience of a Lions tour now given he’s likely to be in the mix for the next two.

Oli Kebble: Reports say the Lions will only take 36 players on tour but with isolation requirements in place calling up replacements for injured players is likely to be tricky. Front row is the hardest when it comes to providing cover and so Gatland and his forwards coach Robin McBryde might be tempted to increase the squad size to take 12 rather than nine front row forwards in the squad. Kebble has done a decent job since qualifying for Scotland and his familiarity with South Africa and the club opposition might put him in contention to provide the Lions with some inside information.

Huw Jones: As with Kebble, Huw Jones’s experience of playing pro rugby in South Africa could put him into contention for a Lions place should they opt for a larger squad. Has shown he’s capable of filling in at full back and on the wing and international level and has tightened up sufficiently in defence to turn out for the dirt trackers.

Fraser Brown or Stuart McInally: Potential Lions hookers are thin on the ground. George Turner undoubtably had a great Six Nations (as did Dave Cherry) but Brown and McInally remain Scotland’s first choice. Ken Owens is a brilliant player but we probably shouldn’t be in a position where we’re looking to a 34 year old player as starting hooker for the Lions. The English and Irish options are decent but Gatland might be tempted to take one out of Brown or McInally as cover. Brown probably dented his chances during Glasgow’s loss to Benetton but both are likely to have an opportunity to regain some match sharpness between now and the tour.

Sean Maitland: Maitland had a good Six Nations despite playing Championship rugby with Saracens. Whilst that has been used as a reason to explain away England’s poor form it certainly didn’t affect Maitland. If the Lions coaches are tempted to go for youth in their Test backline then they may want an older head passing on tips in the dirt trackers. Maitland’s ability to cover across the back of the park is also in his favour as is his previous tour experience. There are likely to be others in the mix but he may pop up as a surprise pick on May 6th.

Verdict

Scotland might get eight players in the squad overall but even the most optimistic of Scotland fans would be hard pressed to say it should be more. There may be some surprises come the squad announcement and we’ve done our best to highlight those with an outside chance. But competition for Lions shirts is always fierce and Scottish chances have to be rated against the quality of the opposition elsewhere (even if that’s something English pundits in particular are incapable of doing for their own players).  

Realistically Scotland should be looking at 5 players minimum in the initial Lions squad. That is a good return when you consider that at least four are going to be pushing for a place in the Test team. Having Scottish players representing the Lions in Tests would do more to restore the concept of the Lions in Scotland than having players make up the numbers in the mid week games. Quality of representation over quantity is what matters. Let’s try and hold on to that next Thursday.

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Born a Souter but brought up just south of the Border in Berwick where he played for Berwick RFC as a kid any any position where cover was needed.
Follow Cammy on twitter @CammyBlack

44 comments on “How Many Scottish Players Will Make the British & Irish Lions Tour?

  1. Saint4805 on

    I just hope that Gatland keeps the ‘reputation picks’ with ‘credit in the bank’ to a minimum otherwise it just becomes a closed shop and harsh on those who outperformed their peers at the 6N.

    With Sexton ‘stood down’ at the weekend and JD2 and Ringrose performing poorly I think Hogg, Mish, Finn, Harris and one of Sutherland (if fit) or Zagerson will get selected. Price has an outside chance but I fear Gatland will go with Murray, Youngs and a Welsh SH.

    • Scottie on

      How can Price be a contender when he’s taken pelters for not being the best 9 at Glasgow? Not his best 6 nations. Fagerson blew it and hardly inspired against Benetton. He should be starting, as should Sutherland when both on their game. Hogg is still prone to brain farts, being recently charged down when in open field with time to kick but dithered, conceding a try. We have no certainties. On their day, we can match, or better, each and everyone 1-15 but we always find a way to butcher our chances and give our doubters ammo – as Glasgow recently demonstrated. Bear in mind we are trying to force our way in and the incumbents have been proven. Sure, many incumbents are now unworthy on current form but will still have the edge based on past experience. There is also talk of Welsh and English exiles being better placed – Kruis, Parkes and Webb for example. Very tough for us but we should not dismiss the Lions if we’re underrepresented, we should use it as a catalyst for change, based on fan power, similar to recent football ESL revolt.

      • David on

        This is such a defeatist way of looking at it. Did Gatland refuse to pick Wyn Jones, Tipuric, Webb or Biggar in 2017 when Ospreys finished 4th in their conference and lost to Benetton? Of course not, because a season isn’t based on one game and all of those guys played well in other matches. Equally he still picked Munster players after they lost at home to Cardiff or Saracens players despite losing to Worcester. The Scottish players showed at the absolute top level that they are as good or better than their counterparts from other nations, the fact that they lost a meaningless game against Benetton is neither here nor there for Lions selection.

      • George on

        Well the odds on Chris Harris have tumbled now to evens to make the tour. 4 weeks ago they were 6 or 7/1. Obviously the George North injury has had an affect. Sexton has drifted. If he is not selected I can see no Murray either. I can actually see the final figure being very much depending on possible injuries in remaining domestic games.
        Hogg Russell Watson Harris Maitland Fagerson Z. For me

      • Scott on

        David, you’ve missed my point. We are on the outside trying to get in. The defeat at Benetton was a chance for Brown & Fagerson et al to step up. If you’re already on the inside, then it may be a meaningless game but our players had a point to prove and showed the same old failings.

  2. Saint4805 on

    Does anyone know if there will be an announcement about Scotland’s summer schedule and who might be caretaker HC in the absence of Toonie?

  3. Scotty on

    I think 5 in the original touring party would be appropriate. Hogg, Russell and Watson as definites, VDM, Sutherland, Harris, Fagerson and Gray are in the next batch.

    I fear for Watsons test spot as I think Curry will start at 7 and the number 20 will be a backrow that can also cover second row such as Henderson or Beirne.

    Hogg will be our only starter with the potential of Russell on the bench to mix things up (if he does well in the warm up games).

    • FF on

      For me 5 is minimum to hold back my latent rage and frustration, 9 is fantasy land and anywhere between would make me very happy.

      I agree we could struggle to get test starters but as always it will be heavily dependent on injuries and how well people play and train on tour. Even though it is short, if Russell for example, impresses Gatland up close and personal and delivers the goods before the tests, he’ll edge ahead of FHs we assume are favourites.

      Optimistic scenario for me, to tour: Hogg, Watson, Russell, Price, Harris, Z Fagerson, R Sutherland, J Gray, DVDM. There’s a few other possibles but those above I’d say have at least a 50:50 chance, so if every decision went our way (it won’t) that’s what we’d end up with.

      Optimistically, test team could include: Hogg, Watson, Sutherland, Russell (sub), Fagerson (sub). Just as likely to only include Hogg though.

      • FF on

        I see Telfer and McGheechan have just picked their Lions XV for BBC and have Hogg and Russel starting but no forwards.

        Curry starts because he’s a bit bigger than Watson. FFS

      • AndyF on

        That’s my feeling as well.
        4 years ago having beaten Wales and Ireland we were told that the away loss to England and no-one on the coaching team arguing our case was the reason for losing the 50/50 calls and low overall representation.

        This time we’ve won both our away games (Twickers and Paris not just any old away games), competitive to a couple of points against Ireland and Wales and have two coaches on the selection panel.

        And yet…It is a measure of our low expectations, Scottish cringe, past disappointment or reading too much southern media that 4 or 5 is a likely or satisfying outcome?

    • Saint4805 on

      I’d actually have Beirne and Watson starting (along with Faletau) with Curry on the bench to cover 6-8.
      Biggar may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he’s a fairly solid choice at 10 and so I wouldn’t have too many gripes if he started with Finn off the bench for impact but I do fear that Farrell may get the nod being able to cover 10 and 12. I personally wouldn’t have Farrell in the touring party as he hasn’t played well for six months but Gatland won’t leave him out. I am also concerned about seeing Johnny May in many predicted squads. There are other wingers more deserving of a place IMO.

  4. Jim Saul on

    Lots to discuss in this piece.

    “might even see Owen Farrell struggle to make the plane” – absolutely no chance of this happening.

    Ali Price won’t make the squad, let alone challenge for a test starting spot.

    I think Russell is 50/50 to make the squad too. Watson and Hogg are the only 2 nailed on to make the squad. All others are 50/50 or less.

    However, there will be scottish representation as you’ve got a Townshend on the coaching staff and Gatland wont want to piss him off before its started.

  5. Merlot on

    I have to say I quite like the Telfer/Geech test team.
    Williams-Hogg-Watson is a hell of a back three. Experienced, quick, and all three can find space where there shouldn’t be any.
    Switch Curry for Pinball or Tipuric and you haven’t lost anything, but it’s a tough call between them.
    Connor Murray is lucky to get the nod, but none of the other contenders put their hand up that well in the 6N. Price will be lucky to be on the plane but if he is, he’s got a chance of a test spot if he performs in the warm-ups.

    • 1.8T on

      Connor Murray as much as I dislike him is effectively the incumbent, most if not all of the 9s had average to reasonably good 6Ns (including Murray himself) so none of them stuck their hand up saying pick me pick me. Therefore it falls to Murray.

      The back row is an area of real strength for the home nations, we all know how big a talent Jamie Ritchie is but there are so many excellent options to pick from with more experience it makes it hard to include him, especially in a scaled back squad. If you take Mish, Faletau, Tipuric, o mahony, stander, curry, Beirne to name a few and look at them objectively there isn’t much between them. Mish was rightfully voted player of the 6N and it would be a big call to leave him out but it’s very tight.

  6. Nepal on

    Personally I think it’s all over for us and the lions 2017 we came above Wales in the 6 N and we got zero ……not a second of game time. If you are interested in the stats look at Rugby Analyst on YouTube. If you think we’ve been robbed that will confirm it and he’s English. It’s not the Welsh that I am concerned about it’s the guaranteed Red Card Farrell …the sent off in 20 mins Itoje for multiple offences ……there will be three times as many English and they got the triple spoon …..I expect 5 in the squad zip game time ….Hogg injured in a warm up and 5 mins of Finn as a sub ……it’s a disgrace we all know it ….time to tell them where to stick the lions and move on.

  7. Christopher Hogarth on

    This just about the most anti English rugby article I have read. Sinkler is a cert to be selected. How can you say that Francis will be a first pick when he is not even first choice for Exeter

  8. JohnMc on

    Why do posters and pundits continue to overlook Ritchie as a touring option? One of the best 6s in the 6N this year and a mean 7 too. Part of a back row that dominated England at Twickenham and then never took a backward step in SdF in the last Test. What’s the reason for this omission of him as a candidate for touring?

    • Scotty on

      Ritchie is unbelievably good but I think he’s too far down the pecking order. Watson, Currie and tipuric are ahead at 7, stander, navidi and possibly even Sam simmonds will be above him for 6 with Beirne/Henderson/lawes/itoje able to cover there too. Think he’ll be at his peak for the next one though!

      • JohnMc on

        That’s fair comment, Scotty. I just find it hard to accept that such a good player seems to have been omitted from any discussions about Lions back row options.

      • FF on

        I think he’s got an outside chance of touring. No way Sam Simmonds is ahead of him, even if he tours it would be as an 8, and I doubt he’ll tour. But There’s a hell of a lot of competition across the backrow and there’s more celebrated players who are more likely to go, rightly or wrongly in some cases.

    • Saint4805 on

      Although this shouldn’t be the case I think that Hamish winning Player of the 6N has probably harmed Ritchie’s chances as it was always going to be a struggle for both to get the nod and Mish has almost cemented his place.
      I feel that Ritchie v Navidi is one of those calls where you just know who Gatland is going to go with. I’d have Ritchie all day long but this is Gatland we are talking about. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ritchie on the standby list and he may well end up SA if someone gets injured.

      • Grant on

        With Covid and bubbles and all that is it worth a shadow group on standby in south Africa to be called in for injuries , full front row , a lock couple of back rows , a stand off , a scrum half , and maybe a centre and back 3 player , these guys are not “on tour” but are ready to move to the squad and slot in when( no if’s here I think) required ?

  9. Saint4805 on

    I see that Finn played 80 mins for Racing today against Stad Francais. I haven’t seen any highlights or match report but Racing scored 4 tries to 2 and still lost thanks to SF scoring 7 penalties. Kinda suggests Racing’s forwards didn’t have a good day at the office. Hopefully Finn gave a good account of himself ahead of next week’s Lions squad selection.

  10. FF on

    Just read guardian article about Marcus Smith being considered for Lions.

    If Marcus Smith and Danny Care tour and Russell and Price don’t, that’ll be the nail in the coffin for the Lions for me.

    • JohnMc on

      Sam Warburton in The Times (English edition, mind) today set out his preferred 36 this morning.
      He’s nominated a few Scots in his choice, but he’s also picked nearly every member of an England pack that achieved nothing this 6N.
      He picked two Ireland centres I don’t rate at all and has had the cheek to pick Tuilagi, an excellent player when Test match fit but a sick-note for several years now. And also Jonathan Davies, a great player in his prime who’s not done much this 6N either.
      It’s not the official Lions selection of course, but it is indicative of a blind spot for a few Scots who deserve a chance and a bias in favour of players in sides who’ve performed better than us in previous years.
      Tuilagi FFS?
      I’m with FF here if bunches of obvious underperformers get picked for this tour.

      • Not science on

        I think if Russell doesn’t get picked that would be the nail in the coffin not just for the Lions from a Scottish perspective but also the Scotland team for this cycle. No way can have GT as assistant coach and Russell missing. Hope this is not realistic possibility.

  11. Saint4805 on

    Gatland has said he will pick players who have ‘credit in the bank’. Personally I think these picks should be kept to a minimum and only apply to those who were perhaps unlucky to miss the 6N due to injury and are just coming back. If he picks people who haven’t played well for months over those who had a good 6N and should be there on merit then it just becomes a closed shop. Geechs always picked on merit and you would never have had a ‘Geography 6’ fiasco on his watch.

  12. pytelium on

    Henshaw is a test starter..if you watch all the six nations matches this year. Ringrose will hardly make the plane.

  13. Pete D on

    Watched the BT Sport “Fantasy Lions Pick” at the weekend – the panel was Dalaglio, Kay, Warburton, and O’Driscoll – had to laugh ‘cos they couldn’t even get a representative panel! Says it all really….

    • Alanyst on

      But it is representative…50% England 25%Wales and Ireland.

      This has been the makeup of the lions squads for the last 12 years

      • SlowWalk90 on

        I saw the same program. It would have been a decent watch if it had been fairly represented.

        The fact that the Lions haven’t been representative of the 4 nations over the last few tours, doesn’t mean that they had to replace the Scottish voice with a second English one. In doing that, they only perpetuate the imbalance.

        As soon as you saw the panel, you could see how it was going to go…. 4 full teams chosen all with separate players than each other, and neither of the English panelists pick even one Scot. 5 of the 60 names chosen were Scottish in total, and it wasn’t even really called out as an issue. We’ve won 3 out of 5 Six Nations games in four out of the last five years. When are they going to wake up?

  14. Ben F on

    I am crossing everything for Kebble. I think he is underrated and a Lions tour will make him. It would be handy to have a guy who can interpret Afrikaans in the pack.

  15. Muffles on

    Lions Team

    Simon Zebo – Louis Reese Zammit – Huw Jones – Robbie Henshaw – Duhan Van Der Merwe – Finn Russell – Gareth Davies – Sam Simmonds – Hamish Watson – Taulupe Faletau – Tadhg Beirne – Maro Itoje – Tadhg Furlong – George Turner – Wyn Jones

    Stuart Hogg – Henry Slade – Ali Price – Sam Underhill – Alun Wyn Jones – Kyle Sinkler – Jamie George – Cian Healy

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