BRITISH and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland expects a backlash from Scottish players when they face his Wales team in Cardiff in March, as they seek to right some perceived wrongs in his 2013 Lions selection.
In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, the Wales coach revealed that he was very close to picking Matt Scott, the Edinburgh centre, for last summer’s triumphant tour of Australia, but that Scotland’s erratic form in last year’s RBS Six Nations Championship counted against him – and others.
Gatland steered the Lions to a successful 2-1 Test series win over Australia but only one Scot played in a Test, lock Richie Gray coming off the bench in the final match. Sean Maitland was on the bench for the first Test and Ryan Grant the second Test, both without being used.
Maitland and Stuart Hogg made up the initial Scottish contingent named in the squad, equalling Scotland’s worst-ever representation, Maitland having only arrived in the country from his native New Zealand eight months earlier. Glasgow prop Ryan Grant was eventually called up as an injury replacement but was largely overlooked despite the Lions suffering scrummaging problems.
Gatland said he had considered a much larger number of Scottish players and accepts that his final selection was met with disappointment in Scottish rugby.
Speaking at yesterday’s RBS Six Nations launch at the Hurlingham Club in London, he said: “I understand that and I am sure the disappointment will be a motivating factor for the Scottish boys in this championship.
“I hope it will be. That’s what I would expect because I totally understand the frustration in Scotland because we didn’t pick a lot of players in the end.
“We certainly did consider a lot and, at one stage, you could have had double the number in, because there were a lot of close calls.
“We only picked two backs but Matt Scott was also very close. We spoke about him a lot and were impressed by him, but I think a number of those Scottish boys who were in the frame were just in their first or second year of international rugby and maybe need another year or two under their belt. If those boys continue to develop the way they have been in the past year I think you’ll see a lot more Scottish players in the Lions squad in 2017. There is a lot of good talent coming through in Scotland so there’s no reason why not.”
That is relatively easy to say now, and one cannot tell how genuine or diplomatic the Kiwi was with those words, with all the Lions machinations for 2013 behind us, but he was perhaps the first Lions coach to be candid about how much Scotland’s Six Nations displays had cost individual players.
It has long been believed that Scots suffer through the failure of the national team to win more consistently on the Test stage, and that was certainly the feeling when Gatland named his final squad after last year’s Six Nations Championship.
“Yes, it has a massive influence,” he admitted. “Scotland actually probably had their best year for a few years, but they only won two games and we watched every game pretty closely.
“Players inevitably don’t get the chance to show everything they’ve got if they are on the back foot and their team is not dominating, and so you’re comparing them with players whose team are on the front foot and performing well and enabling them to show what they’ve got.
“That is tough, and there’s no doubt that the performance of the team can be the tipping point between picking some players and not others, so it does certainly have an impact.”