Allan Massie: Scottish Lions will be hard to find unless we improve in Six Nations
A NEW season begins that will end with the Lions’ tour of Australia. For the next seven or eight months we can all indulge in speculation about the make-up of the party. It’s remarkable really. I confess I thought that the Lions might wither after the game went professional, because the four countries from which the team is drawn would so raise their standards that they would be able, individually, to take on and match New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
To some extent they have done so, or at least they have reached a stage when they each may have as good a chance of winning in the southern hemisphere as the Lions themselves. For this is, of course, the first point about the Lions, a point masked by the excitement which surrounds them: that, really, their record is not very good. The last three Lions’ tours have all ended in defeat. They have only once won a series in New Zealand (1971) and in Test matches there since 1950, they have won four and lost 23. The reason is not far to seek. The Lions are cobbled together in a very short time and are almost always less than the sum of their parts.
Nevertheless, the Lions retain their glamour, partly because they only come to life once every four years, which means also that there is a long gap between each visit to any one country. They were last in Australia in 2001.
Warren Gatland is expected to be named as the Lions coach. But who should be captain? Speculation usually centres on the four national captains. These haven’t been named yet, but are likely to be Sam Warburton (Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Ross Ford (Scotland) and Chris Robshaw (England). However, the choice is not restricted to them. Paul O’Connell (2009) and Martin Johnson (in 1997) captained the Lions, but not their country. Johnson is the only player to have led two Lions tours. O’Connell, if fit and in form, might emulate him.
The captain should be sure of his place in the team. The All Blacks would never have a captain who wasn’t an automatic selection. This consideration may rule out all four of the likely national ones. Even a fit O’Driscoll might no longer, aged 33 next summer, be first-choice number 13. Either Manu Tuilaigi or Jonathan Davies may be preferred. Sam Warburton, if fit, might be the Lions number 7, but he faces competition from, among others, Ross Rennie.
Scotland has been poorly represented in recent Lions tour parties and, although there are one or two who should have gone but weren’t picked – notably Chris Paterson – we can’t really complain. Our record since we last won the Five Nations in 1999 has been poor, and it is usually the teams which do well in the Six Nations tournament in a Lions year that supply the bulk of the party. So, unless we win at least three matches next spring, only a handful of Scots are likely to get the nod from the selectors.
It doesn’t help that some of our potential Lions play in positions where competition is very strong. Stuart Hogg, for example, made a brilliant start last spring, and contributors to this paper’s website were describing him as a certain Lions prospect. However, even if he recovers from injury and shines in the Six Nations again, he is up against Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny and Ben Foden. If the squad was being picked today, I would think that Kearney and Halfpenny would be selected, with Halfpenny favourite for the Test side, partly because he is the best goal-kicker available.
We have a lot of talent in the back-row, with Andy Robinson almost spoiled for choice: Ross Rennie, John Barclay, David Denton, Kelly Brown (fit again, we hope), Alasdair Strokosch, Rob Harley, possibly Johnnie Beattie, the up-and-coming Chris Fusaro, Stuart McInally and Ryan Wilson. But then there are also fine back-rowers in Wales, Ireland and England.
There may, at the beginning of this season, be as many as 20 players competing for, at most, seven or eight Lions back-row places. We can be pretty sure also that most will go to players from the national sides that finish in the top two or three of the Six Nations.
At the moment, I would guess there are no more than four or five Scots in running for a Lions place. Of them, only Richie Gray and Ross Ford look like sure things, barring a loss of form. Tim Visser has been the top try-scorer in the Magners/ RaboDirect 12 league over the last two seasons, but look at the competition on the wing: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Chris Ashton.
Whoever plays scrum-half for Scotland has a chance of going but Mike Phillips and England’s Ben Young probably head the queue for two of the three scrum-half places. In short, the only way we can get – and indeed deserve – a better representation in the Lions party is to win or finish second in the Six Nations. But of course we want to do that anyway – and it’s about time we did.
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