Two-time British and Irish Lions skipper Martin Johnson believes Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg is “at the front of the queue” to pull on the No 15 red jersey in New Zealand next summer.
The man who led England to World Cup glory in 2003 was impressed by the Glasgow Warriors player during the Six Nations and named Hogg along with two of his Scotland team-mates, WP Nel and John Hardie, in his Lions select following the weekend’s final round of matches.
Hogg, who toured Australia with the Lions as a 20-year-old in 2013, has been back to his electric best in this tournament and scored a magnificent try in the 35-25 defeat by Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.
That came six days after a man-of-the-match turn by the Hawick man in the 29-18 win over France and he was also instrumental in the victory in Italy last month.
Scotland’s representation on Lions tours has been dismal for the last 20 years, prop Tom Smith the last Scot to start a Test when he scrummed down against the Wallabies in 2001. Token appearances off the bench by Gordon Bulloch, Richie Gray and Ross Ford have been the only tartan contributions in the last three Test series, but Johnson believes Scots would now make up one fifth of a starting XV.
“Stuart has played really well this year and I think you have to say he is at the front of the queue for the Lions full-back jersey at the moment,” said the 46-year-old.
The former England coach would also select South Africa-born tighthead Nel, who has earned rave reviews for his impact on the now formidable Scottish scrum, and livewire New Zealand-born openside flanker Hardie.
Standard Life Investments Ambassador Johnson told lionsrugby.com: “Nel has been the cornerstone of an improved Scottish scrum and has impressed me every time I’ve seen him.
“Hardie has looked good for Scotland since his arrival on the international scene and gets the nod.”
The majority of Johnson’s selections go to the champions, including one for Chris Robshaw, who lost the England captaincy following their World Cup debacle.
“One of my highlights of the weekend was seeing Chris get the Grand Slam,” added the former lock, who played 92 Tests in his career, including eight for the Lions. “It would have been easy for Chris to go away and worry about himself after the World Cup disaster.
“He was dropped as captain, and told to change position and yet he hasn’t missed a beat and would deserve his spot in a Lions team at the moment.”
Johnson also gives a thumbs up for Robshaw’s successor, Dylan Hartley, the controversial Kiwi-born hooker who led his adopted homeland to a perfect championship record in his first campaign as England skipper.
“He has just captained a Grand Slam-winning side so how can you not have him?” reasoned Johnson. “He has had his issues in the past but he has led England to the title and you can’t argue with that.”
In his old position, Johnson has been impressed with the impact made by 21-year-old Maro Itoje.
“It’s an interesting time for the second row from a Lions perspective,” said Johnson. “Paul O’Connell has gone but Alun Wyn Jones is still there, while Ireland are excited about Iain Henderson and Scotland’s Richie Gray is working on his fundamentals.
“But if you are picking at the moment for the Lions then it has to be the English pair of Maro Itoje and George Kruis.
“I think Eddie Jones has handled Maro’s rise very well, first using him from the bench and then getting him into the starting line-up. The guy is only 21 and is already being heralded as a saviour of the game. Let’s let the kid play.
“I could see from watching him at club level that he was a fine athlete – at a level which we might not have seen in the second row before. But I was worried he was more of an athlete than a rugby player. Does he have that natural instinct for rugby? Quite clearly we can say now that he does.”
Johnson also sees similarities with an old team-mate in star No 8 Billy Vunipola and said: “He is a modern-day Dean Richards in my book. He doesn’t look athletic and when he gets the ball he does not look like he is going very quickly, but he is unbelievably effective. To have a player like that who can get you four or five metres over the gain line every time is invaluable. It makes everything else so much easier.”
Last week Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw was asked about the potential of players making the trip to tour against the world champions and he said: “We want as many Scottish players on that tour as we possibly can. Everybody always talks about it apart from the players and there’s a huge amount of rugby to be played between now and then.”
MARTIN JOHNSON’S STANDARD LIFE INVESTMENTS LIONS XV:
Stuart Hogg (Scotland); Anthony Watson (England), Jonathan Joseph (England), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Ben Youngs (England); Jack McGrath (Ireland), Dylan Hartley (England), WP Nel (Scotland), Maro Itoje (England), George Kruis (England), Chris Robshaw (England), John Hardie (Scotland), Billy Vunipola (England).