So Scotland will – finally – have some representation on the British and Irish Lions coaching team this summer in South Africa.
This has been as infuriating for Scots as the better-documented absence of tourists and test players over the last 20 years.
The last Scottish Lions coach was Sir Ian McGeechan, in largely a figurehead role, in 2009. Geech and Jim Telfer have entered Lions lore for multiple great works, but they’re the only Scottish coaches the Lions have had…ever.
Gregor Townsend finally breaks that mould this summer, and to a lesser degree Steve Tandy, who while very Welsh has built the reputation that got him selected in the last two years with Scotland.
Townsend was always going to South Africa
Townsend had a chance to go with the Lions in 2017 – one Welsh writer told me Rob Howley, who eventually took the attack brief, would have been “carrying the plastic cones” had Gregor gone.
Gatland definitely wanted him. But Townsend had just taken over as Scotland coach and his first task was the tour of Australia and Fiji that summer. He quite rightly decided that’s where his priorities lay.
When Gregor told us after the last Six Nations game against France that Scotland’s summer test schedule was maybe Japan, possibly Spain, probably Georgia and likely Romania, we all guessed. He was a shoe-in for this role if he wanted it.
Less so Tandy. Gatland clearly wanted to get the rest of the gang back together from 2017, Andy Farrell on defence, Steve Borthwick with the forwards, Graham Rowntree as scrum coach. It was made known at the weekend that all three weren’t available, the inference that they had declined the honour.
The need for a “voice”
At least, however, this fulfils the “voice” Scottish Lions hopefuls apparently so badly need in selection discussions. Gatland cited this as one reason for just two Scots originally selected in the 2017 touring party, this after a reasonable season of three wins in that year’s Six Nations.
Our last Lions test starter is still Tom Smith, in 2001. The last Tour test series in New Zealand in 2017 passed without a single Scot featuring even off the bench. To be completely fair Stuart Hogg would have certainly played had he not fractured his cheekbone in a “friendly fire” collision with Conor Murray.
In announcing his assistants, Gatland said there would certainly be more Scots in this touring party. So there should be. Scotland beat England and France away this season, which fulfilled another of Gat’s reasons for not picking them, namely they couldn’t win big games away from home.
It sure is great to have a voice, and recognition. But Gatland’s track record – as Lions coach, not so much with Wales – is calling on player he knows and trusts. I’m sure Scotland won’t get the insult of two tourists again, but will it be a great deal more?
Is it, for example, going to be a detriment to English contenders that, for the first time in 21st century, they have no “voice” in selection discussions? Or is Gatland going to be that voice for those who’ve toured with him previously, when he was by his own admission incapable of being even-handed in 2017 when it came to Scots?
Any caveat will do for Scots, it seems
It’s might be me being paranoid (it isn’t, I’m ambivalent about the Lions). But every Scots contender seems to have a sizeable caveat when discussed for Lions duty.
Stuart Hogg, quite obviously the best full back available, is “suspect under the high ball” or generally defensively unsound. Hamish Watson is “too lightweight for the Springboks”, although he’s roughly the same weight as Siya Kolisi.
Finn Russell is “unreliable”, Jonny Gray “isn’t a matchwinner”, Ali Price is “inconsistent”. Duhan van der Merwe is “suspect defensively”.
Van der Merwe’s one case in point. He led everyone in tries, players beaten, metres made in the Six Nations just passed. He missed three tackles, but Louis Rees-Zammit, the flavour of the month and apparently a certain test starter, missed nine.
Other Scots may got on tour, we’re told, but strictly as dirt trackers. Although with just eight games, there’s not much dirt-tracking to be done.
How does Jamie Ritchie get ahead of Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola, I hear asked? I don’t know, how about utterly outplaying them both in direct competition at Twickenham in February?
This selective assessment has never been better shown by the opinions of Jonny Gray last season to this. The Scotland lock was a workhorse, we hear, all those tackles and carries, but not much more than that. Where was the dominance?
Barely weeks after he joined Exeter, Gray was suddenly “a force of nature”. How did he go from marginal to Lions probable in just two or three months? Is anyone seriously suggesting six weeks of pre-season with Rob Baxter turned Jonny from a donkey to a thoroughbred?
Again, perhaps it’s just me and my general ambivalence to the modern Lions. But I’m tired of this seeking approval from people who are disrespectful of our rugby and our players.
Maybe this time we get a fair crack of the whip and having a “voice” helps. I’m not holding my breath.