Stuart Hogg has been Scotland’s pride for the past few years, the nation’s undisputed star player whose brilliance has made pundits throughout the British Isles sit up and take notice. However, it could be that come that first clash against the All Blacks on 24 June it is wing Tommy Seymour rather than the swashbuckling full-back who becomes the first Scot to start a Lions Test since Tom Smith way back in 2001.
That is the view of Stuart Barnes, the former Bath, England and Lions stand-off turned journalist and commentator, who suspects coach Warren Gatland may prefer Welshman Leigh Halfpenny in the red No 15 jersey to the man who has been voted Six Nations player of the tournament two years on the trot.
“I sometimes think south of the border I’m the only person who knows who Tommy Seymour is,” said Barnes, who played for the Lions in the Gavin Hastings-skippered tour of New Zealand in 1993.
“The chat down here is all about Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, George North and Elliot Daly. But from the second game of the season when Seymour got four tries against Leinster and I was there for that game I just thought this guy is getting better and better.
“I also remember back to when Scotland lost narrowly down in Wales in last year’s Six Nations and Tommy scored a try that day and he really caught my eye. George North scored an amazing winning try and got all the headlines but what I went away thinking was ‘that Seymour is a bloody good player’. Wales have a big aerial game but he caught and defused everything, the way he combined with Hogg in attack, his finishing. He’s unfussy and not flash but that ability to handle the kicking game will be so important in New Zealand.
“I think Seymour is the Lions best option on the wing, right now I’d play him on the right and move North to the left.”
Barnes has been a prominent advocate of Hogg in the past couple of years, but the man who earned ten England caps as Rob Andrew’s understudy in the 1980s and early 90s reckons his namesake has work to do in the early tour games to convince coach Warren Gatland he is the man to don that red No 15 jersey. “Although Stuart has been viewed as a Test Lion I think he still has a few questions to answer,” said Barnes.
“I love watching Hogg play but that doesn’t stop me from acknowledging some of his weakness. He is so expansive and exciting in his ambition that sometimes he overplays his cards. He’s sometimes looking for the counter before he’s caught the ball. New Zealand have a fantastic kick-chase game that can have the opposition at sixes and sevens. If Stuart Hogg is to be the Lions Test full-back he has got to be rock solid under a high ball.
“I much prefer him in most areas to Leigh Halfpenny but the Welshman is arguably a more secure pair of hands and a safer defensive bet.” Barnes was a midweek “dirttracker” 24 years ago and believes that will be a role that Greig Laidlaw, the Scotland scrum-half and captain who has joined Hogg and Seymour in the squad after the withdrawal for family reasons of Ben Youngs, will thrive in.
That said, he views Laidlaw’s game as suited to the gameplan that will be needed to beat the All Blacks and doesn’t rule out the possibility of Laidlaw forcing his way into the Test reckoning. As a No 10 who liked to play off the cuff himself, Barnes is also a big fan of Finn Russell and believes the Scot is ahead of George Ford on the standby stand-off list. The Sky co-commentator views Russell as a hugely promising talent but suggests he “goes for the 12-1 horse instead of the 2-1 favourite in his playmaking decisions a bit too much”.
As for the Lions’ chances, Barnes has a five-point plan for success. “The Lions have to win in the scrum, not just get parity as that’s an area they can dominate,” he said. “They have to match the All Blacks in the lineout, the centres have to get over the gain line as [openside and skipper Sam] Warburton has no chance going backwards. They’ve got to get their defence right, it will have to be a basic system as they haven’t got much time together.
“Finally I think they have to do an almighty rain dance. If it’s wet and windy, New Zealand can’t play their running game and it comes down to a battle of the packs and goalkickers then it’s 3-0 to the Lions. Beauden Barrett is the most exciting player in the world but if you were rating the top 20 Test stand-offs as kickers he’d probably be 20th.”