After achieving the strongest representation in a Lions’ squad for 32 years, the next task for the Scottish contingent (The Fateful Eight? The Octonauts?) is to crack the Test 23 against South Africa. Some are closer than others but all of those selected are in with a chance if they are given an opportunity to showcase their skills. First up – the props.
Last Test series’ minutes at loosehead for a Scot – Tom Smith in 2001
Item number one on the agenda for Rory Sutherland is undoubtedly to demonstrate his fitness after an extended period on the sidelines. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t quite ready in time for any of Edinburgh’s Rainbow Cup fixtures after the big prop from Hawick played just 129 minutes for his club in this season’s PRO14.
The major reason behind Sutherland’s absence from the domestic scene has not been injury though but rather due to him dominating the Scotland number 1 shirt. He has started all bar one of the national side’s 14 Tests since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, bursting back onto the Test scene after a near 3-year hiatus. His Lions’ loosehead rivals, Wyn Jones and Mako Vunipola, have started 10 and 8 internationals respectively over the same period.
His recent absence from action could be a blessing in disguise in some ways as he should be fresh and the Lions’ coaches may be keen to get him some game time as early as possible, potentially allowing Suzz to be the first loosehead to lay down a marker when Japan visit Murrayfield at the end of June. Once the action kicks off in earnest then it will be a three-way battle with Mako Vunipola’s previous Lions’ experience set against Wyn Jones’s excellent 2021 Six Nations and Rory Sutherland’s consistency over the last two years.
The stats (and the eye test) suggest Rory is the strongest scrummager (just a single scrum penalty conceded in the Six Nations compared to four for Vunipola and five for Jones). The coaches are likely to want to see more from him in the loose as both his rivals have a bit of an edge there. During the Six Nations, Sutherland averaged 15.7 carries plus tackles per 80 minutes against 16.6 for Vunipola (in what were relatively quiet performances by his standards) and 21.8 for Wyn Jones.
If he can demonstrate in the warm-up matches that he can narrow the gap on his rivals in terms of work around the field then given the Springbok’s power at scrum time, Rory’s setpiece consistency could be the key factor that barrels him into the number 1 jersey filled with such distinction by Tom Smith in South Africa 24 years ago.
What are the chances? If he can prove he’s in match shape by the end of July then he is the most likely Scottish forward to start. He has been one of the most consistent looseheads in Test rugby over the past two years.
Last Test series’ minutes at tighthead for a Scot – Paul Burnell in 1993
Andrew Porter’s injury and the subsequent call-up of Kyle Sinckler has changed the picture a bit for Zander Fagerson. With Tadgh Furlong likely to take the number 3 shirt he filled with such distinction four years ago it had looked like a shootout between two quite similar players in Porter and Fagerson for the bench slot. As a more natural tighthead scrummager compared to the converted loosehead Porter, Zander might have started the tour with a slight edge that would need to be reinforced by his performances.
Adding Sinckler to the mix allows the Lions’ coaches the luxury of the same 1-2 punch that was used at tighthead in New Zealand four years ago. Throw in the additional motivation his initial rejection seems to have given Sinckler and it seems likely that Fagerson’s route to a Test jersey has become harder not easier, despite seeing one of his original rivals drop out.
Zander has a broad skillset but pretty quickly he needs to focus in on what the Lions’ coaches require from him. For Glasgow he is an all-rounder, with a relatively even number of carries and tackles per 80 minutes. He’s also developed himself into a turnover threat on opposition rucks. For Scotland his focus is very much on being one of the primary carriers and he trucked the ball up nearly 2.5 times as often as he tackled during the 2021 Six Nations. He definitely has the capability to work on both sides of the ball if that is what is required.
His outstanding fitness levels (no prop has played the full 80 minutes more times for Glasgow in the era of 23-man squads) may not come into play too much if he is a bench option but it may help his case as someone who can play a part in the midweek games and also come in to do a shift off the bench in Test matches a matter of days later.
One area he might do well to work on to enhance his chances of Test action is as a distributor. The man he is trying to usurp, Kyle Sinckler, rightly has a strong reputation in this area and Tadgh Furlong is no slouch. Zander made just 7 passes in the Six Nations and if he wants to be more involved in the Lions’ attacking structures then taking on more responsibility as a decision-maker who can pick his moment as to when to pass or carry would be another tick in the box towards featuring against South Africa.
What are the chances? May need to curb his natural instincts to be aggressive slightly but if he does he can provide a more solid scrummaging option than Sinckler while still generating a high workrate around the park. In the mix for a bench spot.