In an article for Walesonline, Delme Parfitt feels Scottish fans are overdoing their ire at only getting 2 players in the Lions touring party. Here’s where On Top Of The Moon disagrees (original article in black, OTOTM’s thoughts in red):
If there’s one good thing to come out of Scotland only having two representatives in the Lions squad, it’s the fact that at least it’s got a few more people in their country talking about rugby.
Usually there’s barely a murmur from the majority of the public north of the border when it comes to the oval ball game.
Pick up a newspaper in any big Scottish city and if you find a six-paragraph piece on rugby tucked 12 pages from the back alongside the lonely hearts section then you’re doing well. (You’re a bit 5 years ago on this one I’m afraid.) Especially if it’s been a busy week for Celtic and Rangers groin strain stories. (Not so much of the groin strains since the old-time shaggers like McCoist and Goram retired. To be fair it’s understandable that a lot of the attention goes the Old Firm’s way with each side having an average attendance greater than Cardiff City, Swansea City and the Welsh Premier League combined – journalists do love to find the biggest numbers to target their clickbait at…)
The downside of this commotion, however, is of course that from a Scottish point of view it is negative. (Really? Try reading some of the more realistic appraisals like David Barnes. Try reading some of the people making positive cases for the inclusion of Scottish players. It’s also forcing Scottish rugby to look at what they need to do to get a better representation in future and will be a motivating for Gregor Townsend and his troops in coming seasons.)
Fiery Jim Telfer, the former Hawick headmaster who might have invented the mystical Lions motivational speech, (I don’t think the Lions have lacked for motivational leaders and stirring speeches in their 130 year history. Just because this one was caught on camera doesn’t mean he invented it) and who was a coach on the victorious 1997 tour to South Africa, has been moaner-in-chief. (You’d prefer the sanitised PR-speak you’d get from those currently involved in the Scotland setup? His comments were probably about 25% of the words you’ve managed to use up moaning about the Scottish response to the Lions!)
Expressing his disgust at the meagre Scottish contingent (He never mentioned being disgusted but knock yourself out.) that has full-back Stuart Hogg and wing Tommy Seymour as the only members of a 41-strong squad, Telfer insisted the Welsh are over-represented, that including 12 guys from a squad that finished fifth in the Six Nations and which was humbled at Murrayfield in February ‘cannot be justified’.
Telfer has been far from the only Scots pundit to register disapproval, and predictably there has been some real venom on social media. (Venom on social media is par for the course. For example witness discussion around the current situation with the Dragons.)
Had it not been for the distraction of an unexpectedly called general election, you wouldn’t have been overly surprised had Nicola Sturgeon made a Holyrood statement calling for Scottish independence from the British and Irish Lions. (Topical – if slightly tortured and illogical.)
And yet claims Scottish players have been hard done by are at best spurious, at worst downright foolish. (Why? They are just opinions on some of the more marginal calls in the squad. No-one is calling for Finn Russell to start ahead of Owen Farrell. There’s no demands that Ryan Wilson replace Billy Vunipola. It’s Warren Gatland’s squad, he lives and dies by who he’s picked so he can do what he wants – but it doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with him.)
Barring a tiny handful, none of them have any Lions pedigree to fall back on. (Neither do 25 of the players selected this time out.) That meant individuals had to produce Six Nations form of a standard that left Gatland with no choice but to throw them a red jersey. (Like Kyle Sinckler [played 38 minutes] or Iain Henderson [one biggish game against England] for example?) The truth is, very few did. So, if anything, it’s bleating of the type we’ve heard from Telfer which isn’t justified.
The truth is that, as a collective unit, Scotland were vastly improved and did deliver some terrific moments during the championship.
But they were obliterated by England, beaten by France and might easily have lost to Ireland. (England game apart the same could be said for Wales.)
Yes, they are entitled to crow about their win against Wales, but in terms of it having a significant impact in their players’ favour on Lions selection, well, they were always going to need more. (What more precisely? The goalposts always seemed to be shifting.) Had the Scottish Rugby Union not blocked proposed coaching appointments like that of Gregor Townsend, it might have been a little different. (The SRU didn’t block Townsend from the Lions. Gregor made the decision that taking charge of his first summer tour with Scotland was more important than a made-up ‘assistant attack coach’ role [that’s never been in place for any tour before this one] that was subordinate to the man who seemingly made Wales far, far worse than the sum of their parts and who was responsible for an attack that couldn’t get a BP against Italy and scored 5 tries in their other 4 fixtures. The SRU did offer Vern Cotter as a consultant for the selection process – what happened there?)
While sweeping verdicts on the Six Nations are one thing, a closer examination of Scottish claims in each department of their team is more instructive. And this is where a hole is blown in the theory of those crying foul.
Who really deserved to be picked?
In the back three they can have no compaints. (*complaints.) There are two Scots – Hogg and Seymour. It’s Ireland who have more grounds for grievance here with Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls nowhere to be seen. (Ah that mystical previous Lions experience again. Maybe worth noting that Simon Zebo has scored 1 try in his last 16 Tests and hasn’t scored in the 6 Nations since his debut match back in 2013.)
At centre, the best Scottish player, Huw Jones, is unfortunately ruled out by injury. The only other possible contender, Alex Dunbar, was ripped to shreds by Jonathan Joseph at Twickenham. (It was Jones who was opposite Joseph in that match. Scotland’s best centre is actually Duncan Taylor.)
At fly-half there have been howls of despair at the non-inclusion of Finn Russell. Fair enough, there would have been few complaints if the 24-year-old had made the cut, but his supporters ignore two vital points.
The first is that Russell, slender, slight and skilful as he is, simply isn’t a Warren Gatland type of player. There’s no use anyone complaining about that because it’s the coach’s prerogative to go with the players he believes are most suited to doing his bidding on the field. Russell isn’t the first to suffer in this regard. He won’t be the last.
The second is that in too many big games Russell has disappeared, Glasgow’s Champions Cup defeat to Saracens being a classic example. Gatland continually emphasised how he was looking for players who could stand up on the biggest stages and under the most severe pressure. Russell failed to tick that box sufficiently. (Glasgow were simply overmatched in every department against Saracens. Like everyone else in the backline Russell was forcing things just that bit too much – but they needed to if they were going to come up with the answers to the problems Saracens were posing – playing normally wasn’t going to cut it. No mention of the Pro 12 Final? Pro 12 semi-finals? Leicester home and away? Racing home and away? Two Man of the Match performances in the 6 Nations?)
At scrum-half, Greig Laidlaw would have had a strong shout, but is injured.
And so what of the forwards?
Scottish props? Forget it. Only WP Nel would have been within a 100 miles of inclusion (Zander Fagerson had a torrid 3 scrums against Ireland and a tough afternoon v France – but once reunited with a scrummaging loosehead Scotland conceded nothing against England and had the upper hand in the Wales and Italy games. He also won his personal battles in matches against Leicester and Racing 92 and is part of a Glasgow pack with a 96% success rate in the scrum this season) – actually he would have been there or thereabouts (Nel would in all likelihood have been the expected first choice before getting on the plane – although of course having to nail down the jersey once he got to NZ) – but, like too many other key Scottish personnel, the South African-born powerhouse is currently crocked.
At hooker Fraser Brown blotted his copybook against England by getting sin-binned early on for a silly mid-air challenge on Elliot Daly that could have seen him sent off. (Should one incident have that much impact in a campaign in which he’s been one of Glasgow’s players of the season, taken over the Scotland no. 2 jersey on merit from 100 cap veteran Ross Ford, proved his versatility by starting at openside in the Pro 12 and been one of the key players in the Warriors’ run to the European Cup knockouts?) Add this to the fact that No.2 is one of the most competitive positions and there is nothing remotely unfair about his exclusion. (Not unfair but another close call so hardly surprising Scots would be pulling for their own man – as I’m sure Welsh fans would have been with the equally excellent Ken Owens.)
Similarly, the Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, fell victim of THE most crowded department in the whole selection process in the second row and form that simply wasn’t impressive enough. (J. Gray one of the top tacklers in the 6 Nations and one of the top tacklers in the European Cup? Combining a 98% tackle completion rate for Glasgow with averaging over 12 carries a game? I’d say his form has been pretty good this season.)
If there was no place for England’s Joe Launchbury at lock, how could there be for this pair? (Launchbury fell to the [not really required?] ‘flexibility’ of Iain Henderson. Jonny was superseded by another lineout caller in Courtney Lawes. Personally I would have taken Launchbury and Gray ahead of the pair selected.)
In the back row, there will have been Scottish grumpiness about Hamish Watson falling short, but again, in an area of thunderous quality and vast Lions experience who, realistically, should he have pipped? (Tough call indeed, but with the overload at 6 [including Itoje and Henderson who can cover there] and with O’Brien being a 7 who plays more like a blindside would it not have been better to take another specialist openside? Watson has been a one-man team for Edinburgh, Scotland’s breakout player of this year, coming up with crucial turnovers to seal the wins over Argentina and Wales among his outstanding play at the breakdown. Also a superb carrier.)
Finally, if cases are being made that certain Welsh players are fortunate to have been picked, then it isn’t Scottish ones who have been harshly treated as a result.
To highlight a few examples, if Ken Owens hadn’t made it, Dylan Hartley would have. (That’s pretty definitive for “one of the most competitive positions”.) If Alun Wyn Jones had been ditched, Launchbury was the obvious alternative. (Granted – but see my earlier point about locks.)
Had Ross Moriarty not received the thumbs-up then it would have been James Haskell or Chris Robshaw. (If you don’t take the opportunity to balance the backrow with another out and out 7 to compete with Warburton and Tipuric.) Irish wonderkid Gary Ringrose would have been favourite had Jonathan Davies not done enough, (Ringrose “simply isn’t a Warren Gatland type of player”.) and Zebo or Kearney were standing by for Leigh Halfpenny. (See my point earlier about Zebo. Would the Lions really need a specialist full back like Kearney? With Hogg, Liam Williams, Watson and Daly in the squad it would seem like an unnecessary indulgence.)
Scotland’s revival, overblown though it has been by some, (they’ve won 5 home games in a row for the first time since 1991; 3 home wins in the 6 Nations for the first time ever – massive strides have been taken) together with the admirable patriotic fervour for which their nation is renowned, means that opprobrium over their paltry Lions group was to be expected.
But that doesn’t mean it’s justified. In fact, it’s anything but. (Do you expect people to sit back and just nod sanguinely when they get the lowest percentage representation on any post-WW2 tour? People are entitled to fight their corner on some decisions that must have been decided by some very fine margins. Folk will get over it because it’s Gatland’s call and he’s made it – not because we can be 100% definitive on those decisions. But right now it’s raw and fans are entitled to go through the process. Denial was leading up to the announcement. We’re in Anger right now. Pretty soon you’ll see it working through Bargaining (“take Finn ahead of Ford if there’s another 10 needed”); Depression (“we’re never getting more than 3 on a Lions tour ever again”); and Acceptance (“Right – wall to wall rugby throughout June and July – let’s do this!”)