THOSE screaming blue murder about the lack of Scots in the Lions squad named by Warren Gatland this [Wednesday] afternoon, really need to book themselves in for a reality check because they are all suffering from a particularly virulent outbreak of selective amnesia.
Just because there are now more Scots than there has been for 20 years capable of sneaking onto the plane to New Zealand, it does not necessarily follow that they should all have been selected.
Scotland had a good Six Nations by recent standards, but when it really cranked up a notch at Stade de France and Twickenham they were found wanting – too many main men were either posted missing in action or disintegrated in front of our eyes.
Like it or not, the defeat against England was the defining moment of the campaign for Vern Cotter’s team and not only did they fail to deliver, they were completely overwhelmed. That can’t be airbrushed out of history.
Scotland did well to beat Ireland and Wales, but neither of those teams were at their best when they visited Murrayfield. Shame on them for disrespectfully underestimating the challenge they faced, but let’s not pretend that those were the only two recent games that mattered.
Let’s remember that breath-taking Friday evening at the Millennium Stadium in round four of the Six Nations, when Wales bounced back from their Scottish upset in sensational style by defeating Ireland with a performance full of fire and intelligence. Hand on heart, can we really say with absolute conviction that Scotland could have lived with either of those teams that night?
Wales also gave the red rose brigade a real run for their money in round two; and what about that crazy climax to their campaign in Paris, when they endured a ferocious French bombardment for 20 crazy minutes of extra time, surviving scrum after punishing scrum despite having tighthead prop Samson Lee in the sin-bin for ten of those minutes, plus both starting second-rows in Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball off injured? Yes, they lost out in the end, but what a heroic demonstration of defiance.
As for Ireland, does any rugby fan really need reminding of what they achieved at Soldier Field in Chicago on 5th November last year? Or at the Aviva Stadium on 18th March this year?
The point is, it is not good enough to say that Scotland beat Wales and Ireland at home, and finished one place ahead of Wales in the final table, so they should therefore have an equal or greater Lions representation. Ireland and Wales were competitive throughout, Scotland were not. Ireland and Wales have proven track records of recent success, Scotland do not.
Okay, so Leigh Halfpenny is currently a shadow of the player he was a few seasons ago, but he plays the same position as Stuart Hogg – who is on the tour – so, if any country and individual should be feeling hard done by then it is surely Ireland and Rob Kearney.
Is Jonny Gray any more deserving of selection than Joe Launchbury of England?
This argument that players should be picked purely on form and not past achievements is complete nonsense.
Players who have shown in the past that they have the ability and courage to get the job done when everything including the kitchen sink is being thrown in their direction are exactly the type of individuals required. This isn’t a development tour when players get the nod because of what they might be capable of, this is the real thing when the coach needs to be able to call on characters he knows he can count on. Form is temporary, class is permanent.
It feels like Scotland (and Scottish players) are moving in the right direction but we are not there yet, as was demonstrated at Twickenham, and when Glasgow Warriors were completely outplayed in every facet of the game against Saracens in the European Champions Cup just over two weeks ago.
Gatland can’t risk selecting a stand-off who will blow up like Finn Russell did against France, or a hooker who will get himself sin-binned for a reckless challenge in the first minute of a match like Fraser Brown did against England.
Harsh? Absolutely. But we are not talking about an egg-and-spoon race at a Sunday school picnic, where there is special rules to make sure everyone gets to feel like they have been included. There are no second chances.
We have to go back to Croke Park in 2010 to find the last time Scotland won an away match in the Six Nations against any team other than Italy. It is frustrating that Scotland have been the poor relations of British and Irish rugby for so long, but firing up a bandwagon at the first sign of progress is daft.
It was bound to come down to marginal calls – and maybe a few more decisions might have swung Scotland’s way if one of the two coaches from north of the border who were offered a place in Gatland’s coaching panel had accepted the role.
In fairness, Gregor Townsend really had to go on tour with Scotland; but Jason O’Halloran’s excuse that he wanted to stay home to oversee the first few weeks of pre-season training at Glasgow Warriors really doesn’t wash. He could have been back in Scotland by 9th July, two months before the season is due to start. If Jonathan Humphreys, Kenny Murray and Mike Blair can’t be trusted to hold the fort during those early pre-season weeks (when Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour will be with the Lions and countless more away with Scotland) then what are they doing on the payroll?
It has been suggested that O’Halloran wasn’t interested in going On tour as Rob Howley’s assistant attack coach, which is hard to believe – and if true stinks of arrogance.
We will perhaps never know how close Russell, Jonny Gray or Hamish Watson were to selection, but what we do know is that when the question of how these players might fit into the squad dynamic or react to the prospect of not making the Test team came up there was nobody inside the camp able to give a first hand appraisal.
There is also a bit of bad luck involved. Injury means that four of the Scottish players best equipped to make the cut – Greig Laidlaw (as midweek captain), Duncan Taylor, Huw Jones and WP Nel – were wiped out of the reckoning. John Hardie and Alasdair Dickinson may also fit into that category.
It is not all doom and gloom. We are frustrated because we know that several current Scotland players can be good enough to go on a Lions tour, but time is on their side. Russell will be 28 when the Lions head to South Africa in 2021, which is three years younger than Jonny Sexton is now.
Zander Fagerson will be 25, Brown will be 31, Jonny Gray will be 27, Richie Gray will be 31, Watson will be 29, Ali Price will be 28 and Jones will be 27. All being well, Hogg will be embarking on his third Lions tour at the age of just 28.
If these players can continue to develop as part of a successful Scotland side which has learned to cope with the intensity encountered when visiting venues such Twickenham, Stade de France and the Millennium Stadium, then we might be in for a bumper crop in four years’ time. And we may even have a coach or two involved as well.
There is no conspiracy here, or anti-Scottish agenda. We are where we are, and it doesn’t make you more patriotic because you shout loudest about the world being against your country. We can carry on crying foul, or get real about what we need to do to make absolutely sure that Scotland is never as poorly represented again.
Full squad –
Forwards: Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales).
Backs: Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben Te’o (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).