THE wave of optimism coursing through Scottish rugby in recent weeks about the level of tartan representation on this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand ran into an immovable dam constructed from near complete English superiority at Twickenham yesterday.
No player in navy blue will have come away from that match feeling they have enhanced their chances of making the flight to Auckland (let alone shouldering their way into the Test team), and with that in mind Stuart Hogg’s absence for most of the game due to a head knock can perhaps be viewed as a blessing in disguise.
The big problem for Scottish Lions hopefuls is that they are not exactly pushing at an open door when it comes to convincing head coach Warren Gatland to put his trust in them. The New Zealander showed when he took charge of the last tour to Australia that he has no interest in playing appeasement politics when it comes to finding a player balance which suits all four countries. He selected only three Scots players – Richie Gray, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg – in the initial touring squad for that trip; and flew at Ryan Grant as an injury replacement for Gethin Jenkins after just two matches. Gray was the only Scots player to feature in the Test series when he trotted onto the pitch at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney for the final 13 minutes of the tour finale.
Gatland was in Edinburgh earlier this week to promote the touring side’s association with the Cure Parkinson’s Trust based at Edinburgh University’ Little France campus, and afterwards faced the inevitable barrage of questions from the Scottish rugby press about how many players from north of the border had pushed themselves into contention through their performances during the first three rounds of Six Nations matches.
Gatland conceded that Scotland’s form had created a ‘headache’ but insisted that was a ‘good thing’. He explained that he had visited the Scotland training camp and found the environment like night and day when compared to what he had witnessed on a similar trip four years previously, and challenged the likes of Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar, Hamish Watson and the brothers Jonny and Richie Gray to really prove their credentials at Twickenham this weekend.
However, in a separate briefing for Sunday publications, the forthright Gatland made it clear that three major factors were working against any Scots looking to push their way into Lions contention.
1. NO SCOTS ON THE COACHING TEAM
Gatland’s frustration at both Gregor Townsend and Jason O’Halloran turning down assistant coach roles on the trip has clearly not subsided. When asked if he is satisfied that he knows enough about the Scottish players and what makes them tick, the answer was abrupt and to the point.
“No. It would have made a hell of a difference if Gregor or Jason had been able to go on tour,” he stated.
“You want a balance there. You want someone pushing players, and at the moment they haven’t really got that voice. It’s only an external view, from me, or Steve Borthwick, or Andy Farrell, or Rob Howley.”
“They [Townsend and O’Halloran] obviously know the players a hell of a lot better than we do, so it’s not ideal.”
“Who’s pushing someone like Alex Dunbar, compared to someone else in the same position from another country. He’s done pretty well. There’s some different combinations and a reasonable number of players from a 13 perspective, but there’s not a massive amount from a 12 perspective.”
“Henshaw has done pretty well, Farrell could play there, you’ve got Dunbar, other guys in the Scottish set-up who are not recently playing, but where’s their voice? Are they the type of people who would respond to being away for six weeks?”
Garland did add that the door is not completely closed to the prospect of having some sort of Scottish voice in the selection process.
“I spoke to Andy Irvine about it, and he said would you ask one of the coaches to come along to a selection meeting, whether it’s Gregor, Jason or Vern Cotter. I had a good chat to Gavin Scott yesterday as well, about players we’re looking at and what they’re like around the squad and as people. I chatted to Vern afterwards and potentially we might invite someone to come to a selection meeting to give a Scottish perspective,” he explained.
2. SCOTTISH PLAYERS AREN’T USED TO THESE SORTS OF TOURS
Scotland played in New Zealand during the 2011 World Cup when Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson, Richie Gray and John Barclay were involved, but have not toured there since 2000. England played a three match series there in 2014, Ireland in 2012 and Wales in 2016. Scotland have never been on a tour which has taken in three Tests against a leading southern hemisphere side.
“I was at a dinner last week with Brian O’Driscoll and he said something to me that was really interesting. Having toured New Zealand a lot, with the Lions and with Ireland, he didn’t feel that it is a place to take inexperience. You go to New Zealand with players who have been there, who have been around. It was interesting to hear his point of view and I took that on board,” explained Gatland.
“Sometimes you get some different views and people are worth listening to. That’s something I’ll think about and communicate with the other coaches.”
“Ireland have a slight advantage, having beaten the All Blacks in Chicago; some players from the England set-up won in 2012. Other players have been to New Zeland and have done pretty well touring. There’s lots of things to consider,” he aded.
3. SCOTLAND HAVE ARRIVED LATE TO THE PARTY
“It’s a balance between players with form at the moment against players with some experience,” said Gatland.
“A player can have bad form, but if they’ve got some credits in the bank from the past, you give them an opportunity, a quiet word to say: Look, you need a couple of good performances.”
“I thought George North was poor against Scotland. I thought he was completely outplayed by Visser. Both the Scottish wings played really well that day. There’s a bit of pressure on him to play well. Sometimes you want players to feel that, to be under pressure, to see how they respond.”
The consensus will surely be that North answered his critics against Ireland on Friday night. Any similar statement made by Scottish hopefuls against Italy next weekend is unlikely to have the same impact.
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland and 1993 Lions captain Gavin Hastings were at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh to learn where Dr Tilo Kunath conducts research on a novel cell therapy – work funded by The Cure Parkinson’s Trust (CPT).
The Lions are supporting The Cure Parkinson’s Trust with a “Leading the Lions” fundraising dinner at Sheraton Grand Hotel, Edinburgh on Thursday 27 April. The dinner will see great names from Lions history come together with 1993 Lions captain Gavin Hastings, 2017 British & Irish Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland and Tour Manager and 1971 Lion John Spencer. To book places please visit tours.lionsrugby.com/leading-the-lions/ or call 0344 788 4067.