I’ll never run down the side of a mountain again. Doing it in 1997 jiggered my knees. And I’ll certainly never do it to get to the pub to watch the British and Irish Lions again.
On 28 June, 1997, two friends and I hiked to the top of Schiehallion. I hesitate to say climb because the Perthshire peak at 3,552ft only just sneaks into the top 60 summits in the UK. It’s almost perfectly conical, like a Disney interpretation of what a mountain should be. It’s rich in botanical life, blaeberries and the like (thanks, Wikipedia), with yetis and troglodytes rarely glimpsed. Nevertheless it was a superhuman achievement that afternoon to return to sea level in what we claim to be a still-unsurpassed record time to grab good vantage-points in our Kinloch Rannoch hostelry for the second Test of the tour of South Africa.
What a performance we witnessed while our woolly socks steamed. The Lions’ all-Celtic front row – Scotland’s Tom Smith, plus the Irishmen Keith Wood and Paul Wallace – were expected to be mashed to pulp but they challenged their lumbering opponents to a limbo-dance in the scrum and got down lowest. We were worried that Gregor Townsend might try something wacky, like drawing a funny face on the ball before spinning it on a finger, but he was brilliant. So was Scott Gibbs – brilliant at bulldozing Os du Randt, which at that moment seemed to prompt every South African to simultaneously jiggle his hands in his breeks and worry about his manliness. So was Martin Johnson – brilliant at filling the doorway of the ’Boks dressing-room and by extension blocking out the last of the light right across the vast land.
Coach Jim Telfer had challenged the class of ’97 to become immortals – “This is our f****n’ Schiehallion, boys.” Some maintain he said Everest but that’s not important. The Lions had triumphed, and I’ve never forgotten this: with a XV vastly different from the almost all-English line-up lazily predicted before the tour began. Scots cheered Lawrence Dallaglio and Jeremy Guscott’s winning drop-goal and the whole Lions ideal. A couple of years into professionalism, not only was a team drawn from every corner of Britain and Ireland still relevant, it was also wonderful.
And now? For Scots it no longer seems quite so wonderful. Only two Scots have been selected for New Zealand, and only one is expected to get anywhere near the Test side, but there are no certainties even about Stuart Hogg. This could be the year and the tour when Scotland falls out of love with the Lions.
Warren Gatland had a big announcement to make last week, as did Theresa May. You wonder if the former sought advice on how to pass off a two-man representation in NZ as palatable to the Scots from a prime minister trying to make us swallow Brexit without a complete breakaway resulting. Most likely he didn’t bother. Gatland’s a bullish fellow and that attitude will undoubtedly be needed against the back-to-back world champions. As a result, though, Britain, the team, now seems as precarious as Britain, the country.
“There is a real danger that [Scotland’s] temporary disappointment becomes permanent disillusionment which would strike at the very heart of the Lions concept.” The words belong to Austin Healey, the ex-England back who did two tours as a Lion. He was sympathising after Gatland’s squad was revealed, which prompted accusations in some of our more excitable journals that he was “anti-Scottish”. “Scotland must feel like they have an equal stake in the Lions,” Healey continued. “If that ebbs away then the whole edifice starts to crumble.”
Scotland was represented by four Lions in ’97 with a fifth joining up after injuries. Recently the numbers have dwindled. Fair enough, we could hardly pass the ball in those years and didn’t deserve any more. But only two when we win three games in the Six Nations, beat Ireland (11 Lions) and beat Wales (12)? And the world wonders why we can occasionally, every once in a while, appear just the slightest bit chippy?
Gatland reasons that Scotland were good as a team but individuals did not stand out. Good at home but less so away. Well, what about the recent performances of Welshmen booked on the plane like Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar? Biggar didn’t stand out at Murrayfield; indeed the hero of Wales’ World Cup win over England was made to look exceedingly ordinary by Finn Russell at his box-of-tricks best. Halfpenny, as Jim Telfer reminded us, was scared to take a kick at goal. Jones? “I think he’s past it,” our rugby oracle declared. Just to add: those Welshmen were away from Cardiff when they turned in these underwhelming shows.
Scotland’s greats have been marvellously grumpy about the squad announcement, ditching the euphemisms and weasel words often favoured by the football fraternity. My old PE teacher Ian McLauchlan, a victorious New Zealand Lion in 1971 who also toured in ’74, pondered the issue of Gatland being Caledonia-averse: “When he was asked on TV whether there were any Scots in the running he said: ‘There’s Hogg and the new boy at centre and one of the wingers looks quite good.’”
Any vagueness would have been avoided, it’s reckoned, if Scotland had provided a man for Gatland’s backroom team, the coach having sought representation from all four home nations. Gregor Townsend was asked but turned the gig down, his Scotland job starting soon. So did Jason O’Halloran, the New Zealander who is the Scots’ attack coach.
Really? Was it really a case of out of sight, out of mind for Russell, Hamish Watson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay and Fraser Brown because there was no one with first-hand knowledge of their work who could speak up for them when the list was compiled? That would be an even bigger indictment of the selection proceess than those currently doing the rounds.
Quotas have been suggested, a minimum number of players picked from each country. But old Lions have emphasised they wouldn’t have wanted the pressure, or self-consciousness, that such selections would bring. Everyone gets a prize? A Lions tour isn’t school sports day.