TWO of Scotland’s leading players of the past decade, Chris Paterson and Chris Cusiter, have experienced the sweet and sour tastes of British and Irish Lions selection, and they are both backing Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray to feature in a Test team in Australia.
The last Scot to play in a Test match was Ross Ford, when he came off the bench in South Africa in 2009, but the last to start a Test match was Tom Smith on the previous trip to Australia, in 2001.
Paterson was one of the unlucky ones to miss out on Lions selection altogether. In 2001, coach Graham Henry opted for Iain Balshaw and Matt Perry as the full-backs, with Jonny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara and Neil Jenkins the stand-offs. By 2005, Paterson was one of the leading full-backs and goal-kickers in the world game and hopes were high that he would make Sir Clive Woodward’s squad. But, again, he missed out, despite Woodward securing funding for 45 players and three full-backs. Geordan Murphy, Gareth Thomas and Josh Lewsey were the chosen ones then. In 2009, Paterson also had a good claim, but lost out this time to Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny and Lee Byrne.
“I think 2005 was the closest I got,” he said, speaking after another kicking session with Hogg. “That was the one that I really set my sights on. In 2001, I’d only been in Test rugby a couple of years and wasn’t ready, and then in 2009 I was getting near to the end of my career, and playing some good stuff, but … look, this isn’t about me is it?
“These guys know how big this is in their career. It is definitely the pinnacle, but I’ve not done too badly for some career highlights have I?
“I’m absolutely delighted for the three selected this time. I would have liked to have seen more boys, but while you never want to hope anyone is injured, there is usually a high turnover on these tours and I believe that there will be more Scottish players called up as the weeks go on. There always is.
“The ultimate selection is left to the coach and I’m pretty sure there are quite a few Scots who just missed out, and while it might not be much consolation, that’s better than in the past when we’ve only had a handful close to it.
“It’s down to individual coaches and they go with who they know, as you would if you were the coach. But I am confident that the professionals Hoggy, Sean and Richie are, the work they have put into their game so far, is such that they will make the most of this opportunity.”
Cusiter has enjoyed the Lions experience, having made the cut in 2005, but also felt the pain of injury depriving him of opportunities to push for a place in 2009 and this year.
“The 2005 tour was a great experience to be able to look back on,” he said. “I would love to have been involved again, but being out injured this year has taken away that hope and fear I suppose.
“I agree with Chris that I’d like to have seen more Scots in there, but the guys that are in all have a chance of making the Test team, and that has to be their goal. Hoggy has got all the skills you would ever need to play rugby, a pass off both hands, he can kick the ball a mile, he has great strength in the gym, and he’s pretty confident and confidence goes a long way on a Lions tour, because he’s got to be able to back himself in this company of guys like Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny.
“Sean is the quickest player in Scotland I would have thought. He doesn’t always look it because he cruises, but that top-end speed will come to the fore in Australia. But he’s not just quick. Sean has everything – he can kick, pass and create tries for others. He is also a Kiwi with that top-level experience from playing for Crusaders.
“For the last three years Richie has been expected to be a British Lion, but you just don’t know. When he went down against Wales it looked bad and that shows how things can change in a second, so it’s great to see him there.
“But anything less than the Test team for Richie will be disappointment, because his physicality is so good and now it’s about him stepping up and proving he can play in a Test side. He has a lot of competition with Paul O’Connell but I back him to get the other place.
“I’m excited for them and know how they must be feeling this week, but now they have to go on tour and push on, and we’ll have an even greater respect for them when they come back from tour.”
Paterson added: “It’s exciting isn’t it? We’ve got the squad now and already I’m trying to work out the Test team. It will be interesting to see what that will look like. I’d challenge people to write down their Test team now and then see how it compares to the reality in a month’s time, and it would not surprise me at all to see all three Scots involved.”