Let’s get real about the Lions

Image: Craig Watson -www.craigwatson.co.uk

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).

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1257 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

35 Comments

  1. As an old rugby man with Welsh and English blood, I agree with all those who believe Scotland have been hard done by, But let’s forget the detail of this team, the whole concept of Lions is a complete anachronism. Great in the days when it was difficult to find enough players who could afford to pop off to the other side of the world for months ! That is not the case any more, Lions Tours are perpetuated by media and tour operator hype, they bring in little money and only serve to hamper the development of the national sides.

  2. @JohnStoddart: I’m sure Davies was on for about 20 minutes before Wales scored their first try, and their first and second tries were scored while Lovotti was in the sin bin. The only try they scored against 15 men that day was North’s solo try.

  3. Form is temporary, class is permanent.

    Such a tired hackneyed cliché; the retreat of a hack looking to defend the indefensible. I’m pretty sure, Mr Barnes, that – if you had wanted to – you could have written the mirror opposite of your points with the same gusto (albeit misplaced) you wrote and published this one. Did you write two versions (like Bojo) and tossed a coin?

  4. So many many valid points in favour of Scotland having at least 2 or three more players than they have pickedyou wonder if Gatland would have picked Hogg if he haddent got player of the year for the second year in a row.
    Four months previously to their selection process we have Hered nothing but praise and excellent statistics, his team have one bad game and hes on the scrap heap to let Alun Wyn-johns and Kruise in.,its a total joke.

  5. Your quote at the beginning “Scotland did well to beat Ireland and Wales, but neither of those teams were at their best when they visited Murrayfield” We beat Wales well 29-13 and all 12 Welsh Lions played that day

  6. Your quote at the beginning “Scotland did well to beat Ireland and Wales, but neither of those teams were at their best when they visited Murrayfield” We beat Wales well 29-13 and all 12 Welsh Lions played that day

  7. What a terrible article. Absolutely nobody is screaming murder and saying the Scottish people should have a big contingent (I am Scottish) but we should have one or two more. Are you seriously suggesting zander fagerson who got pumped in every scrum in the 6 nations warrants a place? Hamish Watson is very unlucky considering he was the best back row on the park in most games and people like Ross Moriarty are going. Jonny gray also and in my mind he and launchbiry should have gone over kruis (who didn’t even feature in six nations) and perhaps Iain Henderson or Courtney Lawes. You said players were posted missing from one or two games (England and Saracens). Iain Henderson played well in only one on the six nations and all he did was score a try. How does one good performance from him merit inclusion when gray has been a force all season bar a couple?! 4 players maybe is what we should have had and I would say fair play. When you look at some selections (halfpenny, Payne, biggar) that’s where us scots feel most hard done buy with guys our who performed not getting in(although none would go instead of those three on the plane just pointing out these guys are not warranting of a place).

  8. A few counter arguments:
    Warburton’s form improved dramatically after giving up the Welsh captaincy so why appoint him captain?
    Daly saw the same red mist as Fraser Brown.
    Wales didn’t travel very well to M/field especially in the 20 point second half.
    Davies had a panic clearance that lost Wales the England game.

  9. Totaly agree David, we are just starting to come good again, its been a long time in the waiting and with a young team there is plenty potential for a heap of future lions in the squad. Always better using the tried and tested on that tour especially against the blacks, when they go over i will be following the lions dont matter which country they are from will be shouting for them all.

  10. There’re some reasonable points in here, but this piece is guilty of what it’s accusing the fans of being: selective memory.

    Ireland and Wales turned up with one player each off their strongest teams, that’s hardly indicative of taking Scotland lightly or not preparing. They were beaten and they were beaten well. Wales struggled to defeat Italy until Italy were reduced to 14 men. They were turgid for all their games bar Ireland, and as for their “heroic” 20-minute defence? There was maybe 5 minutes of rugby actually played during that time. Wales were not competitive throughout. They were dull. And who did Wales beat away? Italy, meanwhile they lost at home to England – the only team to win an away game against opposition other than Italy.

    Against France Scotland lost tons of players to HIAs or unfortunate injuries like Laidlaw’s twisted ankle. There was tons of re-organisation and all the downtime allowed the fat Frenchies to recover, whilst stripping Scotland of their replacements. And we were still in the game right until the final whistle. That’s not wilting under pressure, that’s bad luck. They were missing about a dozen players you’d expect to make the match 23 by half-time of the England game, and we had Weir at full back, and scored more tries against England than any other team in the 6N with that makeshift backline.

    Dan Biggar wasn’t exactly smooth – throwing intercepts on his on 5m line is worse than Finn’s mistakes. Daly got red carded for a reckless tackle against Argentina, does that not count against him? There are a lot of fallacies or double-standards here. And whilst form isn’t the only criterion, it’s certainly a very important one, and one that a lot of the Welsh players selected fail.

    As others have said, it’s not like we’re complaining that we only got 16 and we wanted 20. We’re complaining that journeymen, out-of-form and unproven players such as Jared Payne, Dan Biggar and Kyle Sinckler are being picked instead of better Scottish alternatives such as Duncan Taylor, Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson. And that a Wales team that struggles to score tries, is eighth in the rankings and finished bottom out of the home nations in the 6N has six times as many players selected to play on a tour that represents the best of home nations rugby. And the blame lies with Gatland and his cronies, not the SRU or the Scottish players.

    • Very true TeamCam, but may I correct you on one point. Wales stuggled against Italy until Biggar got injured, and Sam Davies came on, whereupon they scored 3 tries. I’m pretty sure that the Welsh backs didn’t score one try this Six Nations when the ball had gone through Biggar’s hands.

  11. You are looking at this the wrong way. First look at Super Rugby and then tell me which players in the British Isles play most like the ones who would play at that level. Huw Jones looks born to play SH rugby. Finn Russell is exactly the kind of player the ABs would nurture. Maitland is the first name on Saracens team sheet and a classy player. The Grays make remarkable yards and are athletic all over the pitch. Gatland simply isn’t capable of changing his style and that’s why Scotland hasn’t got the players in.

  12. Would Scotland have lived with either Wales or Ireland that night in the millennium? Yes they would have. That’s the point.

    The issue isn’t that there aren’t 10 or 15 Scots on the tour. That would be a ridiculous expectation. It’s that there are 2.

    Read that again. 2.

    We are worth more than 2 players.

  13. Hang your head in shame David Barnes and find a new profession. Absolute **** from start to finish. How do you explain no jonnie gray? Tell me how many more yards he could have made with the ball in hand, how many more tackles he could have made? We aren’t talking about Fraser bloody brown. He should never play for Scotland again after his stupid dump tackle and yellow card against England. Nor finn Russell, nor indeed huw Jones had he been fit.
    Find another day job or grow a brain.

    • Barr that yellow card, Fraser brown has been scotlands best hooker in a long time.

  14. Common sense amongst the beating of breasts. Scotland fell apart almost to a man away from home when pressure was applied. Why should the coaches expect any different responseunder the extreme presure the squad will be under in eery game other than (possibly) the first one. Get real!

    • Steve. We have 2 players.

      That’s fewer than we had in 2013 when we beat Italy and fluked a win over Ireland.

      Please get real, look at the facts and stop reading the Daily Mail.

    • Daily Mail John John? Phew|I’d be straight down the docs! When did we ever beat anybody of any consequence away from Nurrayfield? When did we last look like doing so? This will have been in the minds of Gatland et al. Perhaps it would have been different with selectorial representation to fight the corner in the tight calls. It was offered but declined.

    • Fell apart? What was the score in France despite losing Barclay and Hardie within about 5 minutes at the end of the first half. Scotland don’t have strength in depth and in modern rugby that is a killer against massive sides like France. The England game was a caplitation but just after half time we had a scrum half playing wing and a stand off playing full back and Mark Bennett lasted about 2 minutes in the 1st half.

  15. I find this article condescending while feigning a world weary wisdom. Most of the points raised against the Scots can be counter-argued, so it boils down to interpretation of events, circumstances and results. For several seasons, Scotland have finished many matches as ‘gallant losers’. This season has put that catechism to rest.
    For Scotland to benefit from this fiasco I would recommend the following: Mssrs. Hogg and Seymour to withdraw from the AB/BL tour (because of injuries); Any other Scots players called up as cover for any BL injured players, should also withdraw (because of injuries); All Scots players, including the said injured, should travel with the Scotland squad to Australia; There should then be time and opportunities for the injured players to make remarkable recoveries, if required against the Wallabies. I hope the SRU administrators can devise a route through the various regulations to ensure that this happens. With any luck, Scotland can put it all together and take home one test victory. As for the Lions, a tough tour and a Tests whitewashing are more than their likely reward. Gatling can then retire along with most of the current Welsh squad.

  16. Is Mr Barnes trying to get on to the tour himself? I can’t think of any other reason for his nomination as arch-apologist for Gatland and Warrenball. He talks of form and past experience yet discounts Scotland (and Wales’ World Cup), and ignores Russell’s performance over the last two years. I actually thought myself that Russell hadn’t done enough to be picked, but that’s because Gatland would always favour the abysmal Dan (I don’t like tries) Biggar. Johnny Gray on the same score has been outstanding in an European context for two years, and ran out of puff in the Six Nations. It shows that the selection is a lottery when Launchbury, the outstanding English forward of the Six Nations. Everyone raves about Itoje, and he does have incredible potential, but Launchbury did twice as much, twice as well. It’s no patriotic whinge to wonder why, when Scotland stuffed Wales, there are 12 Welshmen and 2 Scots. Gatland has picked his own, even though AWJ are Halfpenny half the players they were, Davies is no star, Moriarty is not there yet and Tom Francis is rubbish. To blame it on lack of Scottish representation on the coaching staff just excuses the bias evident in the selection. Townsend has a tour with his new job, and even if Mr Barnes doesn’t understand the importance of pre-season, fortunately for Glasgow, Jason O’Halloran does. Besides, I’ve that heard that Kiwis think that Gatland is a arrogant, obnoxious and overrated and nobody wants to work with him. We will see who’s right in the summer. With this squad, unless Sexton plays every minute of the tests – 3-0 to the All Blacks, at a canter.

  17. the real issue is the Lions concept is dead. It is no longer about selecting the best players but about selecting players you know. Gatland did the same last time, as did Woodward as did Mcgeechan last time he led the Lions.
    They do this because they cannot build a team, so they take players and units en bloc. They have no time because the Lions is an anachronism from amateur rugby, when there were few tours, no leagues, no European Cups. It should be put to bed ASAP

  18. not wanting to be assistant to Rob Howley – as offered to Townsend then O’Halloran – isn’t arrogance, it is common sense. Respect is needed, and I can’t see how any decent coach could have respect for a backs coach (Hwley) who has some of the ebst backs around yet produces the worst backline in the home nations.
    The arrogance was Gatland asking then to be Howley’s assistant – and he knew they would turn that down

  19. Just utter ****. Funny how Scotland are just lucky when they win while Wales are phenomenal when they win. About sums up Gatlands approach. For most Scots the issue is not necessarily only having 2 Scots it’s the fact that 12 Welsh made it. If 5 or 6 Welsh had made it then difficult to argue but 12.

  20. What a lot of absolute nonsense, starting to wonder if this guy watched any of the games… ******* ***!

    • We have moderated your comment. We encourage open and constructive debate but there is absolutely no call for foul and offensive language on a website aimed at rugby supporters of all ages and backgrounds.

    • I can’t help but feel you have to take some of the blame for this outpouring of disgust at your brown nosing David

  21. Yep, a fair article however, there’s a real over reliance on past reputations here, especially with the Welsh contingent. Wyn Jones is overrated…big time. The highly competitive second row contingent would have around four to six at least as good if not ahead of him on current from although I’ll give you his experience. Similarly Biggar, been a real no show since the World Cup. I’m sure given there will be injuries we’ll see how really close the unpicked Scots will be when call ups from here have to be made, Seriously big mistake not taking Watson for this reason. The Nemesis for the All Blacks over the past decade has been in the form of two fantastic Aussie flankers, David Pocock and Michael Hooper. The Blacks were often undone by Pocock at the breakdown, a role Watson with his phenomenal strength and low centre of gravity at the breakdown will similarly fulfil given the chance. Watson has been a revelation this year and will only improve

  22. Yes, I admit it I was whinging! The points are good, but so are the ones made in your article LIONS: THREE BIG FACTORS WORKING AGAINST SCOTTISH HOPEFULS. Can’t help but feel that the SRU have not helped our potential Lions as much as they could have. So I’m still going to whinge, albeit slightly quieter now.

  23. An excellent article, Hen: measured and completely objective. I confess that I was whinging in exactly the way you describe, but you have won me over with some very rational arguments.

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