SCOTLAND’S new quartet of British and Irish Lions returned from Australia delighted to have been part of the first win there in 24 years, but with the gnawing sense of disappointment at not featuring in the Test matches.
However, launching the official Lions tour DVD yesterday, Lions skipper Sam Warburton urged them not to feel that they were merely bit-parts in the historic triumph.
“I am serious,” he said, “because it is important that they, and the others who did not make it onto the field in the Tests, know that without them and the quality they have as players we wouldn’t have done this.”
It is easy for Warburton to be diplomatic. He has had to become a master of PR, indeed, as a Wales championship-winning captain and the Lions’ anointed one this year; schooled in it as all skippers are in the modern commercial age of pro sport. But, pressed on how much this was a Wales tour in Lions clothing, he became quite animated at the input from the Scots, in particular.
“People will compare the number of players there and there were a lot of Welsh boys and not so many Scots,” he acknowledged, “but the coaches knew what they wanted to play the way they wanted, and ultimately we got there.
“But, the Lions have always been a big thing for me and though it is important to have the best players on a Lions tour it is also important for the Lions to have the best players from all four countries. That is what the Lions has always been about.
“Selection is such a difficult thing because I know the quality of players I play against across Ireland, Scotland and England, and Wales, during the season. You’re talking, what, about 500 pro players, into a squad of 36? It must be little things that persuade a coach this way or that.
“If there had been more Scottish players I wouldn’t have complained because they have quality right across the Edinburgh and Glasgow teams, and outside the country, but particularly in the back row where any of the Scottish boys could have been selected and I’d have been happy.”
Warburton continued: “What it proved again was that it is very hard to get picked for the Lions, but the Scottish players made a big impression on the tour.
“Physically, Richie Gray is one of the most impressive players I have ever come across in the game. He says he’s only 6ft 9in but he’s 6ft 10in, and for a guy of that size to have such good co-ordination, running and handling skills is something else. And his strength in the gym really impressed the guys on tour.
“Stuart Hogg is the closest thing to Shane Williams in terms of his footwork that I’ve ever seen. He left guys on their backside in training and the rest of us laughing quite a lot. Ryan Grant was also one of the most popular guys on tour, despite not being in at the start. He is a down-to-earth, relaxed lad but his scrummaging impressed a lot of guys, and he also had some good songs, which went down well with the squad.
“And Sean Maitland was similar: a down-to-earth, easygoing guy but also a real quality player who will be another danger in the Scottish backs this season.
“We all wanted to play every Test so I understood how disappointed guys were not to make it, but the success was down to how the whole squad got on, how we trained and pushed each other.
“Any of those guys could have played in the Tests, and that was the case right through the squad.
“People won’t realise from the outside what goes into an effort like that, but what I said that at the end was that everyone contributed to our success because it was the competition and quality through all the training and games that got the best out of everyone. It was incredibly intense, but it had to be. We wouldn’t have won without that quality all putting the work in.”
The strong Wales input was no surprise, Gatland’s sides having dominated the Six Nations Championship in the past four years and Warburton a stand-out performer. Even with the 24-year-old skipper ruled out by a hamstring injury in the decisive final Test – he does not expect to return until mid-October – ten of the starting XV were Welsh, but from ‘Player of the Series’ Leigh Halfpenny to fellow backs George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips, and forwards Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Toby Felatau, they were also key figures in the triumph.
Questions could be asked over the coaches’ knowledge of Scottish players as all four appear to have surprised on tour with their ability, and whether they were too rigid in sticking to pre-tour team selections and game style. Ultimately, however, this was only the fifth Lions Test victory in history, first in 16 years, and important to the future of the four-nation enterprise.
“We needed a win and I hope we have now done a lot for the legacy of the Lions and given it some new momentum,” added Warburton, already inking New Zealand 2017 into his future goals.
“This was the biggest event I’ve been involved in and if the Lions were taken away I would be devastated. Like all players in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, I think, I’d be so disappointed if we didn’t have that opportunity.
“It was a great feeling to win and I was proud to be the captain, and the one memory I think I will cherish forever is of being presented with my jersey for the first Test by Sir Ian McGeechan.”
A preview of the 2013 Lions DVD can be viewed on YouTube. Type ‘Lions Official Film first look trailer’ into the search engine.