THE British & Irish Lions squad for next summer’s tour to Australia will be selected on merit, according to tour manager Andy Irvine.
For Scotland’s players, that is at once grounds for encouragement and a warning that they need to make serious improvements in the Six Nations championship if they are to have any more than token representation on the tour.
The Lions coaching team, unveiled at Hopetoun House in South Queensferry yesterday, have already selected what head coach Warren Gatland called a “hypothetical squad” based on current form but ruling out players who are currently injured. There was very little detail given yesterday about that group – a captain had been picked, said Gatland, but that was contradicted by his assistant Graham Rowntree. It is generally accepted, however, that there would be few if any Scots in such a squad, after the losses to New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga which saw Andy Robinson resign as head coach last month.
On the last tour, to South Africa, four Scots were eventually picked for the composite squad: forwards Ross Ford, Euan Murray and Nathan Hines, and a solitary back, Mike Blair. On current form, we would be lucky to get half that number.
On that subject, former Scotland full-back Irvine made it clear that Scots will need to be on their game to merit inclusion.
“It will be tough, as unless they perform in the Six Nations you won’t see many out there,” he said. “The coaches will not be any more untoward [sic] Scotland than any other country. All they are looking for is players to play at the high standard they want on tour.”
Irvine is aware that time is not on the side of any Scot who hopes to be included but he is confident that a degree of improvement in the team’s performances can be made relatively quickly. He also suggested that some of the team’s failings had to be laid at Robinson’s door.
“I would rather not talk about individual players, as that puts pressure on them,” Irvine said when asked which Scots, if any, were playing well enough at present to be considered. “It’s difficult to shine in a team that is losing but a couple of boys stuck their head above the parapet during the Autumn tests.
“Warren Gatland, to be fair to him, is not stupid and realised that. He said it would be harder for the Scottish boys to shine, just because they are in a team that is not winning. That’s why it’s so important that they turn it round in the Six Nations. We are down and out just now, but it can turn very quickly.
“England after Australia, nobody rated them at all,” he continued, referring to the Autumn Series. “[England coach] Stuart Lancaster was under pressure and they did not do very well against South Africa. A week later, after they beat the All Blacks, they’re favourites for the World Cup. It can change very, very dramatically.
“Scotland should have beaten England last year, and we could have beaten France, but played poorer towards the end. Our worst performance was against Italy, the weakest side.
“That happened in the Autumn Series. There were elements of the game against new Zealand when we played pretty well. It was perhaps not the top New Zealand side but we put three tries on them and they thought they were in a fight.
“I was just disappointed in the attitude against Tonga. It did not seem right to me. If you don’t have the quality of players or the size of players you can sometimes make up for that by just getting stuck in – the old Jim Telfer style.
“I think Scotland played better in the first couple of Tests [against New Zealand and South Africa] than they did in the last one but that could have been an aberration of selection and complacency. I’m not saying it was complacency that cost Scotland against Tonga as I was not in the dressing room – but it looked like that. The players will say I have got it wrong and they were really pumped up, but all I am saying is that it did not look like they were.”
Although accepting that Robinson did not have a wealth of talent from which to select, Irvine still thinks the coach could have made better use of his limited resources. “I felt a wee bit sorry for Andy,” he said. “I think he is a good coach. If he had a weakness, it was that he did not always select the best sides.
“He chopped and changed the captaincy but, to me, his biggest weakness was that he was not the best in utilising his substitutions. In the World Cup he over-substituted. We were leading against England and Argentina and he took two of our best forwards off. That left me thinking if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
“In the South Seas he made very few subs and we had two very gritty wins. I don’t care what anybody says, we were not better against Australia when we won. They were a far better side but we dug in, were tactically sound, incredibly brave and got a favourable referring decision and kicked a goal in the last minute.
“If you look at the Samoa game the same happened through guts and determinations. I would not be critical of Andy against the [All] Blacks or South Africa, but he would have been gutted to lose to Tonga.
“If you analyse it, we should not be complacent against Tonga because they are no mugs. They have beaten France and they have so many of their players playing at the top level. They are not a wee island side any more.”
Getting a decent number of players into the Lions squad, Irvine concluded, is not merely an end in itself. It also has repercussions for subsequent seasons.
“History usually shows when you come back from a Lions tour you are a much, much better player. For a start you have a lot more confidence as you have lived with players at the top of the game. It would be a massive boost to Scottish rugby if we had a good number of Scots on the tour.”
June 1 (Hong Kong) Lions v Barbarians
June 5 (Perth) Lions v Western Force
June 8 (Brisbane) Lions v Queensland Reds
June 11 (Newcastle) Lions v Combined NSW-Queensland Country
June 15 (Sydney) Lions v NSW Waratahs
June 18 (Canberra) Lions v ACT Brumbies
June 22 (Brisbane) Lions v Australia
June 25 (Melbourne) Lions v Melbourne Rebels
June 29 (Melbourne) Lions v Australia
July 6 (Sydney) Lions v Australia