Scotland and the Lions – what might have been

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. **

This is how it should feel right now as a rugby fan. It should be like Christmas Eve and the build-up to Hogmanay rolled into one. Tomorrow morning it’s the All Blacks vs the Lions – clash of the titans, one the biggest events in world rugby and something that only rolls around every 12 years.

Instead, for Scottish fans, it’s more like the feeling that everyone else will have presents to unwrap except you – there was finally going to be one after years of waiting patiently but it got ‘accidentally’ broken by some Irish fella before the big day. Or it’s like it’s the 31st of December, your pals have got an empty and the party of the decade in the offing but you’re just getting a family gathering with no-one to snog at the bells and yer da dancing like a maddie before throwing up in a corner.

Ghosts of Lions Past

The painfully obvious point about tomorrow for Scottish rugby fans is that there are no Scots in the 23. Unfortunately this is nothing new – it will be the 4th time in the last 10 Lions’ Tests that just 3 nations have been represented in the matchday squad (fun fact – all 4 of those games have ended in defeat…) Even when Scotland have managed to get someone into the 23 (or 22) they have often been peripheral to the real action of the series.

This century has seen only seen a very small contribution by Scotsmen to the Lions cause. Here are the minutes played in Tests by each of the four nations making up the BIL squads (click for large version):

lions-minutes

Ghosts of Lions Present

Back in November, ahead of the Autumn Tests, OTOTM took a look at the Scotland players who might have changed those rather pitiful numbers (backs here and forwards here). The conclusion was that there were a number of candidates who might press their case but Stuart Hogg, WP Nel and Jonny Gray would be in New Zealand (surely an improving Scotland would get at least the bare minimum of 3 in the touring party?) and the dark horses would be two players with a single cap each – Huw Jones in the backs and Hamish Watson in the forwards. So what went wrong?

Stuart Hogg

Even until a couple of weeks ago Hoggy seemed set fair to become that first Scot to start a Test since 2001. That all ended though with some ‘friendly fire’ in the shape of Lions’ roommate Connor Murray’s elbow.
Verdict: would have started but for injury

WP Nel

In the Autumn there was an awareness that WP’s neck problems would mean he was going to miss the November series but the expectation was that he would return in plenty of time for the Lions’ tour. As the one of the most commonly picked starters among knowledgeable pundits (and OTOTM) the beefy Edinbugger was in pole position for the number 3 jersey. Even if he had been able to return to club duty before the selection was made, Warren Gatland might have taken a punt in a position not overwhelmed with stand out candidates. Instead the rehab dragged on and his chances evaporated.
Verdict: definitely in the 23 and probably would have started but for injury

Jonny Gray

Jonny had the misfortune to be a contender in the strongest position for depth in the British Isles. Even others’ injuries actually added to the congestion with Courtney Lawes in particular seizing the chance to hit career best form while George Kruis and Maro Itoje had spells on the sidelines.
Verdict: a perfect storm of others in his position peaking – but Jonny probably still needs to add something to his carrying game if he wants to grab the chance to be a Lion in 2021.

Huw Jones

At this stage Huw’s Scotland career amounted to a turnover on the line in a brief cameo against Japan. There looked to be a lot of potential there though – and so it proved during the Autumn Tests with a try double against Australia in his first start and home debut. Injury in the final Six Nations game against Italy wiped out any chance of playing rugby this summer though.
Verdict: with centre not being an area of strength for the Lions he would have had a shot. Might not have been a Gatland-style midfielder though (for instance he can actually pass the ball…)

Hamish Watson

Tainted by association with the traumatic late defeat to Italy at Murrayfield in 2015 whch probably set back Hamish’s international by over a year. Injury to John Hardie allowed him to take hold of the number 7 jersey and he has made himself an integral part of the Scotland back row. Arguably the national side’s best player across the last 8 months.
Verdict: did his run start too late with too little time to build his reputation? Also in the difficult position of directly competing with Lions’ squad captain, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, an outstanding performer in his own right and who Warren Gatland had far more in-depth knowledge of.

Ghosts of Lions Yet to Come

Last Autumn a Scotland fan might have let themselves drift in a little Lions-inspired reverie. Hoggy and WP would start the Tests. Jonny would be in the 23 somewhere – and surely one more of the Scots’ talented backline would join him? Four Scots in the matchday squad. Once again the Lions really would represent the strength of four nations combined. Scotland wouldn’t be just the filler, the uninvited little brother tagging along with no real contribution to make.

Injuries certainly played their part in wrecking some Scottish hopes for this tour. There has to be a recognition though that even very talented individuals have to be playing in a successful Scottish side to maximise their chances of selection for future Lions’ tours. The levels reached in patches over Vern Cotter’s tenure have to become the baseline. Consistency has to be the watchword. There cannot be any disastrous afternoons like the one at Twickenham in March.

The new traits of inventiveness and playing the game with a smile on their faces can still be augmented by some rather more classic Scottish ways – sheer bloody mindedness and the scavenging, spoiling defence of old could still come in handy. If Scotland maintain their upwards trajectory through the next Lions’ cycle then maybe, just maybe what will be a 20 year hoodoo by that point will be broken and Tom Smith’s record as the last Scottish starter for the Lions can be properly consigned to the history books.


** Well except for Maro Itoje practicing clapping, screaming and shouting “get the ball in”. And Rob Howley standing in front of a whiteboard filled with X’s and O’s while quietly weeping. Oh and Finn Russell dancing – no music required, just the 24 hour EDM *** soundtrack in his head.

*** Note for more mature readers – Electronic Dance Music.

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