RYAN Grant’s belated call-up by the Lions to cover for the injured Gethin Jenkins is well-deserved. He should have been in the touring party from the start, for he was arguably the best loose-head in the Six Nations.
It would be no surprise if he forces his way into the Test side. Undeniably, however, the call-up weakens Scotland in South Africa.
This is important, for their assignment is a tough one. Today’s opponents, Samoa, stand several places above us in the IRB rankings, and the days when you could count on any of the South Sea Islands teams being disorganised and less than fully fit have long gone. Their players have always had great natural gifts, now they are also battle-hardened professionals. There is scarcely a professional club in the northern hemisphere that isn’t delighted to have a couple of Samoan, Fijian or Tongan stars, some of whom qualify to play for their adopted country. So a match against Samoa is every bit as demanding as one in the Six Nations. Remember Tonga in Aberdeen last November.
Then, after Samoa, comes South Africa, and then, depending on other results, possibly Italy. Perhaps it’s just as well Warren Gatland and his fellow Lions selectors showed so little enthusiasm for Scottish players. If we come out of this tournament with two victories, we’ll have done very well indeed. Even one win might fairly be accounted a success. Remember that Italy beat France and Ireland this spring, and that, while we have beaten South Africa at Murrayfield, we have never done so away from home.
Even though we have now lost only four players to the Lions, they are very significant ones. Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland both scored and created tries in the Six Nations; Richie Gray is our outstanding – in every sense of the word – lock and Grant is a pillar of our scrum. Alastair Dickinson, who replaces Grant today, is a great player in the loose, but inferior to Grant as a scrummager. Nevertheless Scott Johnson’s team looks good. Few will cavil at his selections. Of the three newcomers, Alex Dunbar and Pat MacArthur have been knocking very hard on the door for at least a year now, while Greig Tonks was one of the few successes in Edinburgh’s miserable season.
Dunbar has always impressed as a hard-running centre, capable of making a break against any defence. In the last 12 months, his handling skills and ability to off-load out of the tackle have improved greatly.
MacArthur is not the biggest of hookers, but he is one of the most skilful. Tonks gives us something we haven’t had since Hugo Southwell was discarded: a player with a powerful left boot. There is another left-footed kicker on the bench in Peter Horne, a midfield back who is delightfully old-fashioned, in that he has the ability to beat an opponent by sidestep or swerve, rather than trying to run through him.
With Matt Scott as the incumbent 12 and young Mark Bennett coming up fast, Scott Johnson and Vern Cotter, when he arrives, are going to have the right sort of selection problem at centre: who to leave out rather than who to put in. Warren Gatland is in the same enviable position with his Lions.
If we miss Gray, his absence doesn’t weaken the line-out significantly, because Al Kellock remains our best and most reliable jumper. Young Grant Gilchrist deservedly starts beside him, but one presumes that Jim Hamilton, rested after being with the Barbarians for two weeks, will come in against South Africa. The back-row is the one that finished the Championship, but I hope that David Denton, potentially our most dynamic back-rower will also play next week. It’s a pity that neither Rob Harley nor Chris Fusaro is in South Africa, Harley’s omission from the touring squad being incomprehensible to me.
Much attention will be focussed on Tom Heathcote at fly-half because neither Ruaridh Jackson nor Duncan Weir has yet been wholly convincing. Weir is, of course, out injured, but Jackson will surely play in at least one of the other games. His problem has been consistency. One day he is very good indeed, the next horrid, in this a bit like France’s wayward Freddie Michalak. Heathcote has looked a very good all-round player when I‘ve seen him, with no obvious weaknesses in his game.
Some worry that, even though the All Black Stephen Donald has moved on, he may not be regularly first-choice 10 for Bath, who have signed the English starlet George Ford from Leicester. Frankly, I wouldn’t worry about this. If Heathcote starts half Bath’s matches in the English Premiership and the Heineken, he will be getting enough rugby. In any case, I suspect he is probably ahead of Ford. If Ford displaces him, and he is dissatisfied, there’s a place waiting for him with Edinburgh.
This isn’t a tour where performance matters more than results. Nevertheless, grinding out a win thanks to Greig Laidlaw’s boot while showing very little in attack would be less than satisfying. It would be good to see this team display some of the flair that was evident against Italy in February – though one has to add that much of that flair was provided by Hogg and Maitland.