WARREN GATLAND says he expects Scotland to have a far better representation on this summer’s Lions tour to South Africa than has been the case with the two previous expeditions he has been head coach for.
The New Zealander named three Scots in his initial squad for the 2013 tour of Australia and just two for the 2017 trip to New Zealand, prompting criticism from rugby fans north of the Border who felt they had been short changed.
In fairness to Gatland, Scotland had not been any better represented when Ian McGeechan led the Lions in 2009 (two Scots in initial squad), or when Clive Woodward led them in 2005 (three Scots), or when Graham Henry was in charge in 2001 (three Scots).
While a case could be made that Scottish players missed out on a disproportionate number of marginal calls for each of those trips, it is hard to argue that the team played with enough consistency during the first two decades of this century to have made an unequivocal case for a higher number of selectioons.
“I don’t care where you come from, I want to pick the best players,” said Gatland yesterday, immediately after naming two Scotland team coaches – Gregor Townsend (attack) and Steve Tandy (defence) – as part of his five-man coaching panel for the tour.
“There will definitely be more Scots this time because they have fronted up in the Six Nations. Winning away in Paris and at Twickenham is significant because when you are playing for the Lions you are not playing at home.
“Four years ago, what was probably damaging to the Scottish players and the Scottish team is that you go down to Twickenham and you get 50 points put on you. That’s not a good look.
“I think they have had a great [2021 Six Nations] tournament. In the past 12 months, a number of players have put their hands up.
“It is not about having excuses it is about picking a squad of players who you think can perform in a Lions jersey away from home on the biggest stage against the world champions. There’s no doubt that there are a number of Scottish players who have definitely impressed us in this campaign.”
Balancing form with past glories
In contrast, England had a miserable Six Nations campaign, finishing fifth in the table. With a raft of their leading players – particularly those still attached to fallen champions Saracens – are hopelessly out of sorts, it is hard to see there being the same sort of numbers from the biggest of the four contributing unions this summer as we have become accustomed to in recent tours. However, Gatland did argue that recent form is not the only criteria considered in selection.
”There’s no doubt that some of those players didn’t have the greatest Six Nations this year, but a lot of them have credit from past successes – whether it’s winning in Europe, winning the Six Nations, performing well at World Cups, or on previous Lions tours as well,” he reasoned.
“It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them would have been the first names on the sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about them and it’s a good discussion to have, in terms of knowing what they can do and what they’ve done in the past. There’s nothing wrong with having a discussion about those English players.”
The fact that there is nobody from the English set-up in the coaching team is bound to raise a few eyebrows, but Gatland insists it would be wrong to read too much into that. “No one made an issue of it in the past when we haven’t had Scottish coaches, it’s not about that it’s just about trying to pick who you think are the best people to come into your environment, who I think I can work well with and hopefully put a good team together,” he said.
Scroll down to continue reading:
The Offside Line Season Appeal 2020 - 2021
Since our launch in 2016, The Offside Line has established itself as the leading independent, dedicated media outlet for Scottish rugby, averaging just over 250,000 page views per calendar month during 2020 – which is not bad going given that the game was in lockdown for five of those months!
We are passionate about rugby at all levels across the whole of Scotland (and beyond) and are committed to continue shining a light on our sport in order to maintain its profile during these uncertain times.
We also believe that it is more important than ever that we report on and analyse how the game is being run locally, nationally and globally, at a time when some major decisions on issues such as season-structure and finance will have a profound impact on rugby’s future.
If you value what we do and feel able to support us in our quest to continually grow the breadth and depth of Scottish rugby coverage, you can do this by making a one-off donation, or by supporting us with a monthly contribution.
Thank you for reading The Offside Line.
A more significant factor for England players – and for certain Scottish and Welsh players, too – is the most recent effort by PRL (the umbrella organisation which represents the top clubs in England) to assert its rights with regard to releasing players outside the international window.
Scotland have recent experience of this with Sean Maitland being shamefully deprived of the chance to play in Scotland’s rearranged Six Nations match against France, and it now looks like the Lions are going to have problems of their own during the lead-up to their pre-tour match against Japan at Murrayfield on 26th June.
That is the same day as the Premiership Final and while Gatland accepts that the players involved in that match should stay with their club he is concerned about the prospect of players at clubs which don’t make the play-offs being held back despite their season being over.
“It’s not just the English players – looking at the [possible] squad there could be 16-20 English-based players,” said Gatland. “There’s so much competition at the moment, so we’re trying to get a resolution on what PRL’s stance is on the release of players.
“We understand about the Premiership Final and players in that, but we hope to be together for a couple of weeks of preparation leading into the warm-up game against Japan in Edinburgh. If some of those players are not available for that preparation time – [which would mean] we can only have a small group or we’ve got to call in extra stand-by players to play in that game – then when we are doing our final selection, unfortunately some of those players may miss out.
“There are some tough calls to make and I’ll be looking at it and thinking: ‘Is two weeks’ preparation for that game and the tour better than trying to put a squad together at the last minute, to get on the plane and play the following week? Is that going to be a harder challenge than actually picking players who you can work and prepare with?’.
“There have been agreements in the past and the Lions have always compensated clubs for the release of players – something they didn’t really have to do because the regulations allow for release on a certain date,” he added.
“What we are asking for is can they be released a little bit earlier, when they’ve finished their club campaign. I’m just hoping we can get some resolution and common-sense will prevail, so we don’t have to go through the squad and start looking at 50-50 calls on players and thinking: ‘Well, he’s based in England so unfortunately he’s not going to be available to us’.
“We are looking at going to Jersey for a two-week camp [before the Japan game] so the last thing I’d want is for players to miss out on the tour because of [not being available for] that.
“I think the Lions are talking to the PRL this week and I’m just hoping we’ll get some resolution. It’s a big one for us that when those players are finished with their clubs, they are available to us.”
From a Scottish perspective, this could spell bad news for Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Chris Harris and Sean Maitland. Meanwhile, the French Top14 Final is on the same weekend, which could have implications for Finn Russell.