Last Test series’ minutes in the back row for a Scot – Rob Wainwright in 1997
Even as the reigning Player of the Six Nations, Hamish Watson has a huge battle on his hands to try and win the Lions’ number 7 shirt from English wonderboy Tom Curry and third time tourist Justin Tipuric.
In February and March, one of Watson’s primary role was to be a destructive carrier for Scotland. During the Six Nations, Tipuric and Curry combined only made 8m more than Watson. The Scottish openside broke more tackles than both other 7s added together (14 v 9). Hamish also added a try and an assist for good measure.
Given the pack the Lions’ are likely to field Watson may well not get the same high involvement in attack that he did for Scotland in the Six Nations. If required though, he can pivot to being a defensive specialist equally comfortably.
Only Jonny Gray averages more tackles per 80 minutes for Scotland in the Townsend era than Hamish. It’s his consistency in this area that could really press his case though. He was the only one of the openside options not to miss a tackle in the Six Nations. In fact he hasn’t missed a tackle for Scotland for more than two years – that’s 242 in a row.
With three specialist opensides on tour the expectation has to be the Lions’ will look to win the battle on the floor at the breakdown. Again Watson needs to continue his Six Nations’ form having won the most turnovers out of the trio of number 7s (4 v Tipuric’s 3 and 1 for Curry).
Watson is very tidy and disciplined in his work giving up a turnover once every 27 times he touched the ball (Tipuric 1 in 30; Curry 1 in 8) and not conceding a single penalty during the tournament (Tipuric 1; Curry 6). That latter trait could be very important as Lions’ look to avoid presenting South Africa with opportunities to kick goals or win easy field position.
Realistically he is not a lineout option – of the openside trio only Tipuric can lay serious claim to that role. Curry averages one lineout take every 511 minutes over the past couple of seasons. If the rest of the back row includes Tadgh Beirne and Taulupe Faletau though then this isn’t an area that is liable to feature too much in the thinking for selection at 7.
What are the chances? This will surely be one of the toughest selections for the Lions’ coaches. All three options are exceptional players in their own right. Whoever grabs their opportunities in the warm-up matches may seal the 7 shirt for the Tests.
Last Test series’ minutes at scrum half for a Scot – Roy Laidlaw in 1983
Ali Price probably has to push himself forward as the middle way, do-it-all option at scrum half. Conor Murray will be the king of the box kicking, controlling game. Gareth Davies is the running 9 who also plays a big role in defence. Ali has to show his capability to do all of these things to a good standard while also having the energy and attitude to counter the Springboks’ Faf de Klerk. Easy really!
This is not a jersey that would seem to have anyone inked in for Test starts yet. Conor Murray has past Lions’ tours to fall back on and both Murray and Gareth Davies are more experienced than Ali Price. Recently though, Ali has started all bar one of Scotland’s games since the 2019 RWC whereas Murray and Davies’ international outings have been much more sporadic. Big performances v Japan (in front of a home crowd) and/or in the early stages of the tour could propel Price into the 23 – or even the starting jersey.
During the 2021 Six Nations, Price put up some solid numbers in attack and defence. His rate of handling errors was one for every 41 times he touched the ball – substantially better than both Murray (1 every 25 touches) and Davies (1 every 16 touches).
He also managed to maintain a tackle completion rate of 91% compared to 80% for Murray and 64% for Davies (although granted Davies plays a different role in defence, often shooting off the line to cut down options in a way that is almost guaranteed to lead to more missed tackles but which works within the system Wales play).
Murray is not the player he once was, with even his Ireland jersey in jeopardy. Davies’ scrum half fundamentals have often had Welsh fans tearing their hair out. It’s the added maturity and development in areas like the ones noted above that have propelled Price into the Lions’ squad. Now he needs to put together a couple of complete games out in South Africa to push his case.
What are the chances? The security of Murray might win the day for the starting role but Ali has a strong chance of showing himself to be the best all-round option for the bench.