Lions coach Warren Gatland was in charm offensive mode as he visited Edinburgh last week, praising the strides Scotland have made in the four years that have passed since the last tour to Australia and namechecking a good number of individuals as candidates for the summer’s trip to New Zealand.
However, he made it abundantly clear that the decision by two Scottish Rugby Union coaches to knock back the chance to be part of his coaching team could be potentially harmful to growing hopes that the Scottish contingent will be bigger than on the last four Lions tours.
Gregor Townsend, pictured below, who takes over from Vern Cotter in June, has opted to take charge of Scotland’s tour to Australia and Fiji, while Jason O’Halloran, the national backs coach who switches to Glasgow in the summer, feels that he is more needed at the Warriors, with the incoming Dave Rennie not arriving until later in the summer due to Super Rugby commitments with Waikato.
From inside the Scottish rugby environment these decisions make sense. Townsend’s replacement of Cotter has not been without controversy, becoming more acute with the obvious improvement of the team under the Kiwi in the last year or so. For the new man to swan off with the Lions immediately after taking the reins and leaving assistants to man the Scotland ship in the summer would not have been a good look.
Nevertheless, within the Lions there is clearly a sense of irritation about this snub from Scotland and a feeling that it makes any Caledonian whining that they don’t get a fair shake ring rather hollow.
When asked if he felt confident he had enough information about Scottish players ahead of the serious selection process kicking in, Gatland didn’t hesitate in replying: “No.” The Kiwi, who is on a sabbatical from the Wales job to lead the Lions for a second time, added: “It would have made a hell of a difference if Gregor or Jason had been able to go on tour. I spoke to [Lions board member] Andy Irvine about it, and he said ‘would you ask one of the coaches to come along to a selection meeting, whether it’s Gregor, Jason or Vern Cotter?’.
“I had a good chat to [Scotland team manager] Gavin Scott as well, about players we’re looking it and what they’re like around the squad and as people.
“I chatted to Vern after watching training and potentially we might invite someone to come to a selection meeting to give a Scottish perspective. You want a balance there. You want someone pushing players, and at the moment they haven’t really got that voice.
“It’s only an external view, from me, or Steve Borthwick, or Andy Farrell or Rob Howley. They obviously know the players a hell of a lot better than we do, so it’s not ideal.”
Asked if he would be happy for Townsend or O’Halloran to be the men who attended selection meetings to push the Scots’ claims despite their decisions not to tour, Gatland replied: “You’ve got to take the high moral ground, haven’t you?
“Some of the negatives of the northern hemisphere is that we’ve been too insular, we haven’t shared information in the past, we don’t share as much as we should.
“This time’s been a little bit challenging. The door hasn’t been closed but we’ve had to push it open a little bit. The message from me to the national teams is that if they’re down in NZ, our door is open for them. If they want to come to meetings, debriefs, previews, training sessions, they’re more than welcome.
“Hopefully the person who does this job in 2021 will have the door completely open for them.”
Gatland said that he had taken on board advice from former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll that experience was vital on any tour to New Zealand. With Scotland not having toured the land of the long white cloud for 17 years and given their lack of Lions representation over the same period, that could count against Scots in marginal calls.
But Gatland added: “It’s a balance between players with form at the moment against players with some experience. It’s not just about picking your 15 or your 23. There’s a lot to be said for getting the right personalities and characters on tour. People who can gel together as a team.”