Allan Massie: Lions hopefuls caught in vicious circle

Scotland's Finn Russell scores the opening try against Italy but he may not have done enough to earn a Lions call from Warren Gatland. Picture: SNS Group
Scotland's Finn Russell scores the opening try against Italy but he may not have done enough to earn a Lions call from Warren Gatland. Picture: SNS Group
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Vern Cotter has left the Scotland team in a much better place than he found it. Nobody can doubt this and we should all be grateful. Except for the well-nigh inexplicable collapse at Twickenham, this has been a very satisfactory season with victories over Ireland and Wales, a rare double.

In the light of this, it’s interesting to read the speculation about the Lions in the London Press. Looking at the Six Nations table and assuming that there will be 38 players in the touring party, you might think that, while England as champions will have more Lions than anyone else, the other three countries might be evenly represented, seven or eight each. Apparently not. Stuart Hogg is perhaps the only Scot sure to be selected. Tommy Seymour, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray and Hamish Watson may be in with a chance, but it seems unlikely that they will all go. Perhaps one or two, perhaps even none. Otherwise it’s possible that, if fit, Greig Laidlaw may be picked as the third scrum-half and prospective captain of the Wednesday team.

It would however be no surprise if Warren Gatland takes nine or ten members of the Welsh team beaten 9-29 at Murrayfield. This would be partly because he knows the players and trusts them, partly because a fair number already have Lions experience. Such experience is valuable, but it leaves Scots caught in a vicious circle. You can’t get experience of the Lions if you haven’t been a Lion.

The Twickenham collapse will undoubtedly count against the Scots. That’s reasonable. But each of the four countries had one poor match, even if not quite as bad a one. Wales were poor at Murrayfield, Ireland in Cardiff and England in Dublin. On the evidence of Dublin the only English forward who looked a likely Lion was Joe Launchbury, for the English pack was completely outplayed by the Irish one. Yet nobody seems to doubt that at least half a dozen English forwards will be on the plane to New Zealand.

What about attack? To beat New Zealand you are going to have to score tries. Penalty goals won’t be enough, given that most tries are now worth seven points, and nobody doubts that the All Blacks will run in a few. They always do. England finished with a handsome try count, but only because of their matches against Scotland and Italy. They scored one try against France, two against Wales and none against Ireland. That’s to say, they scored freely against Italy when the Italians ran out of steam, and against Scotland on a day when the Scottish midfield defence went AWOL. Otherwise their try-scoring record was miserable, unlikely to alarm or impress the All Blacks. Sadly Wales and Ireland were no better. Dominating England, controlling possession and territory, Ireland still managed only one try. Their back-play was feeble, as was the Welsh back-play against England, Scotland and Ireland.

It’s in this context that we should consider some of the doubts expressed about Stuart Hogg’s defence. Yes, he misses the occasional tackle – so do all full-backs because players often run at them with space on either side. Yes, Hogg may not be as secure under the high ball as Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny or Mike Brown. But he scores tries himself and creates tries for others, and this is what you need against New Zealand. In any case, now that we think of a back three, one might remark that Hogg is less of a defensive liability than George North, who also scores tries but is weak – much weaker than Hogg –when fielding a kick under pressure, while his tackling is suspect. At Murrayfield Tim Visser skipped round him neatly, and the All Blacks will have taken note of this. Nevertheless North is sure to go.

The fact is that, in this year’s tournament, the team most likely to score a try when it got into the opposition 22 was Scotland. Will Gatland take note of this? Will he remark that even in the Twickenham debacle Scotland scored more tries against England than Wales and Ireland managed between them. Probably not. He has always been a conservative coach loyal to the players he knows best and one whose teams have rarely played exhilarating rugby. It would be a surprise if he changes now.

And yet one wonders: what is the point of the Lions if they don’t play with swagger and panache? And one remembers that the only Lions team to win a series in New Zealand did exactly that, inspired by the vision, quick hands and quick feet of Barry John. But the only player with something of Barry John’s style available to Gatland is Finn Russell, and it seems unlikely that he will be getting a welcoming telephone call from the Lions’ coach.