British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland admits that a seismic Scotland win at Twickenham on Saturday would give him “headaches” but welcomes the prospect of increasing the dark blue quota after paltry contributions to the last four tours.
Gatland will name his squad for the summer’s odyssey to New Zealand on 19 April and Scotland’s excellent form in this year’s Six Nations, with two wins out of three so far, has raised hopes that a fair few of Vern Cotter’s men have put their hand up for selection.
Since 2001 the number of Scots on Lions tours could be counted on less than one hand and a lot now depends on how the Triple Crown-chasing team closes out the last two games of the championship, starting on Saturday with the Calcutta Cup showdown against England. Gatland said: “I’m a great believer in the idea that we should want Scotland doing well, because we should want them to be represented in the Lions.
“Sometimes, the team who win the Six Nations can have 17 or 18 in the squad of 38 or 40. The team finishing lowest, you still want six or eight coming in, because then we all feel part of it.
“There was no pressure in 2013 to pick anyone from any nation. But, from my point of view, I’m pleased that there is an opportunity for more Scottish players to put their hands up. But it’s a big challenge for them this weekend. They haven’t won there since 1983. And I think they’re well aware of what is at stake on two fronts.
“One, they can give themselves a chance of winning the Six Nations, with Italy at home to come in the last game. They’ll get that monkey off their backs, too, in winning at Twickenham.
“Secondly, a lot of those players will be aware of the match-ups. They’ll be aware of the record that England are going for and of how the English-dominated press are pushing a lot of their English players for the Lions.
“So you couldn’t ask for any better motivation from a Scottish point of view.”
Gatland, who was speaking at the the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the city’s Royal Infirmary, admitted that the individual match-ups in games between the home nations would play a big part in the selection process.
“At Twickenham, I’m quite interested to see how the two 10s [George Ford for England and Finn Russell for Scotland] match up against each other. The wingers… I thought Tim Visser played well against Wales and Tommy Seymour has been impressive. I think Stuart Hogg has done alright and there’s a little bit of depth in the back three now, with Sean Maitland there.
“I think there are some nice match-ups in the backs and, for Scotland, they’ve got strength in the back row with Hamish Watson. They would fancy themselves against England. I’m still not convinced that [Maro] Itoje is a 6, I think he belongs in the second row, and we’ll have to see if [Billy] Vunipola plays at 8, having not played a lot of rugby.
‘The two Gray boys [locks Jonny and Richie] have gone well and then there is a big challenge up front for Scotland, because the front row have work to do, up against a pretty experienced English front row.”
And if Scotland were to win? “It would create a few headaches, wouldn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with that,” was Gatland’s response.
“We picked three players from Scotland [in the initial squad last time], one of them a young player in Stuart Hogg, someone we took as a 15 and played as a 10. He gained from that experience and has matured since then.
“He’s turned into one of those world-class players, particularly in an attacking sense, because he is strong, quick, he’s physical. Defensively, he still has some things to work on – but everyone has things to work on.”
l The Lions are supporting The Cure Parkinson’s Trust with a “Leading the Lions” fundraising dinner at Sheraton Grand Hotel, Edinburgh on Thursday 27 April. The dinner will see great names from Lions history come together with 1993 Lions captain Gavin Hastings, 2017 Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland and Tour Manager and 1971 Lion John Spencer. To book places please visit tours.lionsrugby.com/leading-the-lions/ or call 0344 788 4067.