After all the months of speculation and chat – be it legally mandated, lightweight, or lazily researched – Warren Gatland has chosen his 37-man squad for the series against South Africa with the healthiest Scottish representation since 1989’s tour.
Nine were selected then, (eight featured in 1993 but Andy Nicol was a temporary replacement) and eight have been selected this time, three in the potential pack and five in the backs.
After Alun Wyn Jones was unsurprisingly presented as the captain for the tour, Lions’ chairman and former England international Jason Leonard got down to the business of naming the chosen ones, starting with the backs and revealed in alphabetical order.
The first Scot out the block was centre Chris Harris. The outside centre may have taken his time to endear the wider Scottish fanbase but after a series of powerful displays in this year’s Six Nations, especially in his defensive work and a stellar performance in the victory in Paris, he had come into consideration.
George North’s recent ACL injury reduced those odds further, and Harris plays in the same mould as Jonathan Davies, the 2017 Lions Player of the Series. As a defensive leader for Scotland’s mean defence coached by Steve Tandy who is also going on tour as one of the backroom staff, he’s now a serious contender to start in the 13 jersey.
Stuart Hogg’s inclusion came as no surprise, the Scotland captain showing some of his best form this year, and Finn Russell was always likely to make the squad, despite serious competition in the stand-off berth, as a point of difference. Boshing over the Bokke isn’t easily done, so if Plan A isn’t working, Finn can bring Plans B – Z, which Farrell and the omitted Johnny Sexton don’t have in their playbook.
There may not perhaps have been as many scrum-halves in the “world class” bracket to partner whoever’s at 10, but it was still a keenly contested are, but Glasgow Warriors’ Ali Price was the first domestically based man to make the squad, and he was soon followed by an Edinburgh representative: the bruising Duhan van der Merwe, who simply had to be included after the blistering start to his international career. 5 tries and 31 defenders beaten in this season’s Six Nations – the latter a new record total – surpassing the 30 that Brian O’Driscoll had set 20 years previously. O’Driscoll turned out to be an alright player.
Glasgow got their second representative revealed early in the list of forwards when Zander Fagerson was given the nod over the like of Kyle Sinckler, which elicited a wee swear of delight from me, and he could potentially pack down on the other side of international teammate, Rory Sutherland, if the Edinburgh man can get over the shoulder injury which Richard Cockerill says is progressing well.
And then came the moment of truth. Doing it in alphabetical order had us all waiting, on edge. If I’d had the foresight to keep count as the names were read out I would have realised that Mako Vunipola was number 36.
After “V” comes “W”. After Mako Vunipola, came Hamish Watson. The Six Nations Player of the Tournament rightly awarded his seat on the plane. Faith in humanity somewhat restored.
The Grateful Eight’s next goal is to go and claim something no Scot has worn since Tom Smith in 2001: a starting Test jersey. Hogg – who would have started the Tests at 15 had he not had an unfortunate meeting with Conor Murray’s elbow four years ago – seems in the driving seat, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against Watson starting ahead of Tipuric or Curry, nor Harris partnering Henshaw in midfield to counteract the famed South African physicality.
My outside bet? With the reduced squad numbers, Duhan van der Merwe has to be in with a shout of starting on the left wing with the more versatile Anthony Watson or Liam Williams providing any back-three cover. Any perceived defensive capabilities should be tossed aside like what he does to defenders. His attacking stats prove he’s a match-winner. Just ask France.
British & Irish Lions Squad 2021:
Forwards: Alun Wyn Jones (c), Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Curry, Zander Fagerson, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Wyn Jones, Courtney Lawes, Ken Owens, Andrew Porter, Sam Simmonds, Rory Sutherland, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Hamish Watson
Backs: Josh Adams, Bundee Aki, Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Gareth Davies, Owen Farrell, Chris Harris, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Conor Murray, Ali Price, Lewis Rees-Zammit, Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, Anthony Watson, Liam Williams