THE influence of Gregor Townsend as attack coach on the 2021 Lions tour will certainly have been a factor in the bumper representation (by recents standards) of Scots selected, but there is no way that Warren Gatland – the head coach of that expedition to South Africa and not a man renowned for his close affinity with Scottish rugby – picked any player in his squad he didn’t think was up to the job. Say what you like about the Kiwi, but the one thing he most definitely is not is an appeaser.
Between 2005 and 2017, four British and Irish Lions tours took place for which Scotland managed to provide a grand total of three Test caps, with Gordon Bulloch, Ross Ford and Richie Gray all picking up one replacement appearance each. Gatland was head coach of two of those trips and an assistant on another.
With all that in mind, it is quite remarkable – and a sign of how squad depth has been developed – that four Lions Test players from the 2021 tour, boasting a total of seven caps between them, were in the Scotland second-string line-up which dismantled Romania 84-0 last Saturday night.
Scrum-half Ali Price, who played in all three Tests against the Springboks two years, was among that group of fringe players desperate to push their way into the first choice side which will face Ireland in Saturday’s World Cup Pool B do-or-die showdown against Ireland in Paris.
Flanker Hamish Watson and centre Chris Harris (one Lions cap each) were also in the starting XV, while loose-head prop Rory Sutherland (two Lions caps) came off the bench.
The weakness of the opposition and settled nature of Scotland’s frontline team means that wide-reaching changes are unlikely for this weekend, but all four will feel that the Romania game did their chance of being in the match-day 23 for Ireland, with Watson’s ball-carrying making him the best bet to sneak into the starting XV.
As far as Price is concerned, dropping down the pecking order this calendar year behind Ben White and at times his Glasgow Warriors club-mate George Horne has been frustrating, but he was pleased with his 55 minutes (before being replaced by Horne) last weekend, when he struck a fine balance between control and attacking flair which was key to ensuring a mismatch didn’t turn into an unsatisfactory bunfight.
Against an Ireland side who will surely be looking to suffocate Scotland’s natural attacking instincts, Price’s experience, box-kick and judgement of when to push the accelerator or apply the breaks is likely to see him selected as scrum-half cover if White is named as the starting XV this coming Saturday ahead of the high-octane Horne, who offers pace and broken-field running rather than methodical game management.
“I think it was a combination of things,” said Price, when asked about his slide down the Scotland scrum-half pecking order this calendar year.
“I played in the November Tests and was reasonably happy. I got quite a few minutes under my belt there, then that period between the end of November and the start of the Six Nations I was given time off and I kind of got minutes here and there with Glasgow.
“That was frustrating for me, not getting the game time I would have liked. It came down to others playing well in my position and there’s not much you can do when someone has taken an opportunity, but I would have loved to have played a bit more going into the Six Nations.
“I won’t forget the chat that Gregor had with me before the England game [at the start of the Six Nations] when I wasn’t involved. It was a heart-sink moment, that realisation, but I saw it coming because I’d not had as much game time as I would have liked at Glasgow and Ben and George were going well.
“The conversation started with: ‘I know you will be disappointed…’ and I was, but I think my reaction showed my growth … perform in training, show what I can do and get myself back to where I wanted to be. That’s all you can do.”
Price – whose 2019 World Cup campaign ended in disappointment when he picked up a tournament ending foot injury in Scotland’s opening match – added that he doesn’t know if he would have handled this set-back as well if it as a younger man.
“I would initially have been disappointed and then it’s very easy to say: ‘Right, I’m not going to help anyone. I’ll turn up for training, but I won’t give my all. I won’t practice my extras’.
“Even just body language: if you go back to the hotel and you’re moping about, thinking everyone is against you and that you hate the world… you can do a lot for yourself by just focusing on what you control.
“I take a lot from that. I work hard and like with anything, it’s one coach’s decision. He’s either going to play you or he’s not. If he doesn’t play you, it’s out of your control, so focus on yourself and see if you can get your opportunity.
“It’s about the bigger picture,” continued Price, who is expecting his first child with partner Annie Madgett in March and believes this has helped him put rugby into perspective. “In life, you grow as a person and a player, you learn more about sport and being angry and upset over decisions which aren’t in your control isn’t going to help anybody.
“It’s not going to help you get where you want to be. Contributing positively, being the opposition in training and just working hard at what you do – that’s the bigger picture.
“That maturity comes with age and from having been around this environment for a while.
“It’s a strong competition and anyone of us can play and anyone of us can back up the other on any given game. We’ve had this group throughout the summer and for the Six Nations so for the whole year we’ve worked as a three and we all bring something a little bit different and we all work well together and I think it’s bringing the best out of all of us. It’s certainly pushing me back to where I want to be. It’s healthy for us as a group on nines.
“I believe that when I’m at my best I give the coach the hardest challenge of whether to select me or not and that’s all I can control. That’s my outlook and it has been for the last couple of years. It means I enjoy it more. I’m doing what I love, I’m with a group of boys I get on with really well.
“Being selected at the end of the week is the bonus, but, at the same time, if I’m not, I’m contributing to those guys going out there and doing the best for the team and that’ll get us the results we need to progress.
“It’s been frustrating at times, don’t get me wrong. Everyone wants to play but I feel that during the Six Nations there was maybe a bit of a turning point for me in terms of I was seeing progress in myself in training. I was fit, I was healthy and I was making the most of the opportunities I had on the field. The starts have maybe been less than what I would have liked or what had been previous but I feel however long I get and through contributing in training, I’ve got myself slowly back to a place where I’m happy with how I’m performing.
“It would be one of the biggest games of my career if I was given the opportunity to play on Saturday. I think every chance I’ve had I’ve shown what I can do. I’ve steadily got myself back to where I want to be as a player. I feel I’ve been training well, I’m in good shape and I feel that’s when I play my best.”