Disconnect between Lions and Scotland is at breaking point

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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The only other time Scots played no part in a British and Irish Lions Test series came in 1908 when the squad was made up entirely of English and Welsh players as the Scottish and Irish unions did not participate.

So Lions head coach Warren Gatland has made history by actively choosing not to include any Scots in any of the three Tests in this summer’s clash with the All Blacks, which goes to a thrilling decider in Auckland tomorrow morning.

It came as no surprise and this isn’t the time to rehash arguments which have rumbled for the past weeks and months over another paltry Scottish representation on yet another Lions tour.

It is, though, perhaps time to reflect on whether a disconnect between the Lions brand and the Scottish rugby public has reached its breaking point.

You don’t have to look far on social media to encounter many Scottish voices who are now vocally supporting New Zealand and hoping that those in the red jersey which has been so proudly donned with distinction by many a Scot down the decades get a bloody nose.

As with everything in Scotland these days there are political dimensions to this but much of the anger expressed is by people with no nationalist axe to grind, would dearly love to get behind what should be the romantic unifying concept of the Lions, but feel like they are being given less and less reason to do so.

Modern sport is all about results, we all know that cliche, and if a first series win in New Zealand since 1971, and only the second come-from-behind Lions series triumph is achieved tomorrow, Gatland will deserve all the accolades that come his way.

But the Lions has always been less about simple results, more about merging those ancient Triple Crown rivals into one unit and forging life-long rugby bonds across the isles. If all that mattered was beating the All Blacks this summer then the best course of action would have been to send the England squad, coached by Eddie Jones, and swap their white jerseys for red. Despite the loss against Ireland this year, the English team have been rugby perfection over the past couple of years and have the ingrained familiarity and cohesion that much of the first month of a Lions tour is spent trying to achieve.

Gordon Bulloch, Ross Ford and Richie Gray off the bench are the only Scots to have featured in the past three series and Stuart Hogg was always our best bet of a first Lions Test start since prop Tom Smith in 2001, until injury ended his tour. Though, given the form of Welshman Liam Williams, the Glasgow Warrior may well have missed out too.

Ultimately, Test spots must come down to merit, of course, but initially it would have been nice if more Scots had been given the chance to stake a claim. Poor representation on the past four tours has been understandable due to the dreadful performance of the national team, although some deserving individuals have been unfairly tainted by the collective malaise, but, perversely, this low ebb comes at a time when the Scotland team is on the up.

The lack of Scottish voices on the coaching and selection team, with both new Scotland boss Gregor Townsend and now Glasgow backs chief Jason O’Halloran knocking back the opportunity to be Rob Howley’s assistant attack coach, has been cited as a hindrance to Scottish chances. But the stats show that Gatland is a man who likes to go with familiarity, with only 18 players to be used in these three Tests, the lowest total since 2001.

In the 2013 Lions Test series, Gatland used 24 players across his three Test starting line-ups – with Wales providing half of those and accounting for 26 of the 45 starts in the series.

In comparatively short tours, unlike the three-month odyssesys of old, the lurch to the known quantity is a comprehensible instinct.

This year’s Calcutta Cup hiding at Twickenham and flop by Glasgow at Saracens in the European quarter-final has been thrown at us but, under Vern Cotter, Scotland were arguably the best-performing home nation at the 2015 World Cup and beat both Ireland and Wales in this year’s Six Nations.

The picture can be more nuanced and, in these pages last week, two-time Lion Scott Hastings made an eloquent and reasoned defence of Gatland. The tour had come a year too early for this burgeoning Scotland group, argued the Grand Slam hero. The big picture may be improving but hone in on the man-to-man match-ups and the Scots are found wanting. Stand-off Finn Russell, who was left out of the initial squad then called in but barely used, needs to do more to prove that he can perform consistently at the highest level, for one example.

All fair points and it is now up to this Scottish generation of players to make good on their current promise. A storming World Cup in Japan in 2019, a Six Nations title or two, a push by Glasgow into the last four of Europe and beyond, possibly to champions?

How many Scots make it on to the next Lions tour to South Africa after all those alluring prospects would, frankly, be an afterthought but it would be nice to think next time will be different. Perhaps Townsend, a hero of the iconic 1997 Lions Test series victory over the Springboks alongside Smith and Alan Tait, will be Lions head coach by then.

We’ve been down the “perhaps next time” road before but can only hope. In the meantime, for all that the absence of Scots may stick in the craw, those men in red that take the field at Eden Park tomorrow still carry the thistle on their chests. Abstention could be forgiven, outright hostility and opposition not so much.