When it comes to Scottish representation on Lions tours there is no shortage of grisly statistics in recent years, the main one being that no Scot has started a Lions Test since prop Tom Smith did so in 2001.
We will only know if that sorry state of affairs is to be put right in three weeks’ time, as the tour gets under way this morning against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei, with Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw in the starting line-up.
It will be the first time since Mike Blair against the Royal Kings in South Africa eight years ago that any Scot has started a Lions tour opener – Sean Maitland was on the bench in Australia in 2013 – and, after some understandable complaints about the paltry number in Warren Gatland’s squad it will be a good chance for the tartan trio to lay down markers.
Gatland has said he will try to use the entire squad in the first two games and Wednesday’s clash with Super Rugby outfit Auckland Blues presents the sterner challenge but the strong side, captained by tour skipper Sam Warburton, that takes the field today certainly doesn’t have the look of a “dirttracker” team.
The Provincial Barbarians, including Gatland’s stand-off son Bryn, are likely to be the easiest they will face on tour, yet it will still offer crucial insights into the style the tourists will adopt and the selection plans of the coach, who is looking to beat his homeland and secure a second successive Lions triumph after beating the Wallabies 2-1 in 2013.
The Barbarians are a stitched-together collection of players from New Zealand’s provinces who have had little time to prepare and who are not expected to pose any serious threat to the Lions in Whangarei as the ten-match tour starts. But the Lions themselves have not had an ideal preparation. Club commitments held back several players from a training camp prior to their departure and, after their arrival on Wednesday and a host of welcome formalities, the tourists have had little shake-down time ahead of their first match.
The starting XV includes five players from England, four from Wales and three each from Ireland and Scotland.
With a 41-man squad, Gatland faces a significant personal challenge in trying to shape his side into a cohesive and unified combination in the six matches that precede the first Test on 24 June.
Hogg has been viewed as the most likely Scottish Test starter, although he has much to prove to those who doubt his defensive capabilities, with Seymour a wildcard bet for a wing slot and Laidlaw the third-choice scrum-half behind Conor Murray and Rhys Webb after being a late call-up. The Scotland skipper gets a chance to show today if he can threaten his Irish and Welsh rivals for the main event against the All Blacks, and his pairing at half-back with Jonny Sexton will be one of the areas under the spotlight today.
“Last week at the end of training I had a chat to the 10s and Jonny said, ‘Don’t worry about [England stand-off/centre] Owen Farrell, he’s a midfielder,”’ Gatland revealed . “There’s already a bit of banter.
“The players are aware about the competition in that position. They’ll get a chance to start, the three of them, Jonny on Saturday and the others in the next two games.”
The playing style Gatland will adopt for the Lions is likely to reveal itself quickly. The weakness of their first-up opponents may give the tourists some room for self-expression but when the Lions face tougher challenges against Super Rugby sides, the style they will take into the Tests will assert itself.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has already indicated that, with little preparation time, Gatland will likely stick with what he knows best. As Hansen put it recently: “We assume Warren’s not going to have an epiphany and change the way he plays.”
That would mean the Lions will adopt “Warrenball,” the style Gatland favoured with Wales during their most successful years under his coaching from 2011-13. That involves big centres carrying the ball to the gainline and incremental progress through retained possession. He might also add, as a hybrid, England’s rush defence. But lack of time gives him little room for innovation.
England centre/wing Daly has been promoted to the Lions’ bench after Jared Payne’s calf strain. The 24-year-old played the full 100 minutes in Wasps’ extra-time defeat by Exeter in last weekend’s Premiership final – and now finds himself whisked into a whirlwind Lions bow.