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.
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.
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.