RICHIE Gray, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland were yesterday named in the British and Irish Lions squad to tour Australia this summer, maintaining Scotland’s meagre but now standard representation of three players.
However, SRU chief executive Mark Dodson has insisted Scottish rugby’s improvement can be measured by the fact that several more head the queue of reserves ready to step in.
Dodson revealed that he had expected four to be chosen by Lions head coach Warren Gatland, with Glasgow backs Hogg and Maitland, and former Glasgow lock Gray, joined by Ryan Grant and the Warriors prop was the one who immediately leapt out as being most hard done by.
“I had four in my head so I think to get three is slightly disappointing,” said Dodson, “but you have seen the guys and how thrilled they are, and proud to represent the British and Irish Lions, so I’m absolutely over the moon for those guys. But I still believe that we’ve got an enormous number of good players coming through. Players like David Denton are injured at the wrong time of the season and we must have had guys knocking very hard on the door, like Ryan Grant, who I think is particularly unlucky not to go, Jim Hamilton and Kelly Brown.
“I wouldn’t like to have been in Warren’s shoes picking that squad because it must have been a very difficult choice in several of those key positions. I’m pretty sure that most of our guys will be next in line if there are any injuries.”
Grant has been in superb form for Glasgow and Scotland in recent months and Gatland had insisted that form was a key selection criteria. But, as always, it was not the sole criteria and the fact that Scotland had little influence around the selection table again showed itself when it counted. As many as ten Scots are understood to have featured in the coaches’ deliberations but almost all of them were on the fringes.
Rob Howley, the Lions backs coach, revealed that Stuart Hogg swung the third full-back vote by virtue of his ability to also play centre and stand-off, which effectively earned him a place over James Hook and Billy Twelvetrees. How that might have been affected had Jonny Wilkinson been available, is open to question.
Gatland confirmed that the veteran stand-off had turned down the Lions opportunity, telling the coach in a phone call on Monday that he was not fit enough to last a Lions tour and that he would not leave Toulon before the Top 14 Final, should they be in it, on 1 June, the day the Lions face the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
In terms of the other Scots, Gatland knew Sean Maitland from his Waikato days and that appears to have been significant, alongside Maitland’s form and experience of playing in Australia, while Richie Gray is a favourite of all the coaches, particularly for his athleticism and ability to play a fast-tempo game on hard pitches, and the fact that he should be reasonably fresh after two months out of the game with injury.
That, essentially, is what it came down to – the faith of the coaches. Four Ospreys forwards were selected among 15 Welshmen, unsurprising since Gatland has worked with them so closely. Six Leicester players are in England’s ten-man contingent, all known well by forwards coach Graham Rowntree. The only surprise in Ireland was that their recent skipper Rory Best was left out. The most controversial choices were, arguably, English forwards. Matt Stevens topped the lot. The 30-year-old prop toured with the Lions in 2005 but was hit with a two-year ban the following year for cocaine use while at Bath. He returned to the top-flight with Saracens in 2008 and took his England cap tally to 44, but he retired from Test rugby over a year ago and, although he can cover both sides, his best days appear behind him.
At loosehead, Rowntree has opted for Mako Vunipola and Gethin Jenkins ahead of Grant. Vunipola, the New Zealander with Tongan blood is an explosive youngster with great potential and Jenkins is one of several players picked who are not in top form – he is returning from a less than successful spell at Toulon this summer – but who the coaches clearly believe will rise to the occasion. Grant tweeted: “Thanks for all the messages, it’s great to have so much support! On a brighter note congrats to the other 3 lads! Huge achievement!”
Instead of Best at hooker, Rowntree has opted for England’s Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley, alongside Welshman Richard Hibbard.
The back row was always going to be close and Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie lost out to Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft.
At half-back, the Irish, Welsh and English scrum-halves were preferred to Edinburgh’s Greig Laidlaw.
Sam Warburton was named captain and revealed he had to keep that a closely-guarded secret for nine days. At 24, Warburton is the youngest Welshman in history to skipper the Lions, with his elevation coming less than two years after he first took charge of Wales.
The Cardiff Blues flanker said: “I’ve known for nine days, and not to tell anyone [outside the family] has been very difficult.
“I can’t wait to do it. It’s a dream come true. Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to play for the Lions.”
Full interviews with the three Scottish players, Lions management and former Lions scrum-half Chris Cusiter, and a guide to the tour, will feature in tomorrow’s Scotsman.
Backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Owen Farrell (England), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).
Forwards: Dan Cole (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England), Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O’Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England), Tom Croft (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales).