Exactly six weeks ago Scottish rugby writers met with Warren Gatland for a chat during a visit to Edinburgh by the Lions coach and the names of local contenders were coming thick and fast.
Scotland were still basking in the glow of that rousing win over Wales at BT Murrayfield which had set them up for a shot at the Triple Crown and potentially even the Six Nations title itself. Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser, Huw Jones, Duncan Taylor, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson were all specifically namechecked by Gatland to raise a flicker of cautious hope that a Scotland side making obvious strides under Vern Cotter might contribute a larger Lions contingent than the meagre numbers of the preceding four tours. Even Josh Strauss and WP Nel were cited in the unlikely event they could get themselves off an injury list that now also includes Jones.
Nobody expected anywhere near that kind of number to make the final cut but, perhaps, we could get past the five that made the groundbreaking trip to South Africa 20 years ago, when the trio of Gregor Townsend, Alan Tait and Tom Smith all went on to make the victorious Test team.
Three days after that chinwag with Gatland, however, came trauma at Twickenham and a 61-21 Calcutta Cup hiding in which you could almost see the Lions hopes of a raft of Scots vanishing before your eyes.
Now, according to the mood music, when Gatland names his squad for the summer tour to New Zealand at noon today in London, we could be looking at just one or two which, in stark contrast with the national team’s form and fortunes, would be an incredible reversal on the three who made the initial party four years ago.
Hogg will surely be included, although even he is not 100 per cent nailed on. “Defensively, he still has some things to work on – but everyone has things to work on,” said Gatland on that Edinburgh visit.
Glasgow wing Seymour has been an impressive performer, but it may be New Zealand-born Maitland, selected by Gatland along with Hogg last time, who has a better chance due to his involvement with European champions Saracens. The London club’s sound beating of Glasgow in the European Cup quarter-final was another reputational blow for Scottish hopefuls but brings the versatile back Taylor, who missed the Six Nations with injury, into contention.
“I’m a great believer in the idea that we should want Scotland doing well, because we should want them to be represented in the Lions,” said Gatland in early March. “Sometimes, the team who win the Six Nations can have 17 or 18 in the squad of 38 or 40. The team finishing lowest, you still want six or eight coming in, because then we all feel part of it.”
This year Wales finished lowest of the home nations but look set for way more than 6-8, while Scotland will come nowhere near. But there may yet be a pleasant surprise or two. Reports floating around the media yesterday before the final selection meeting took place suggested that not everything may be as predictable as the widely-held belief that Welshman Sam Warburton will return as captain.
Eddie Jones’ England have dominated northern hemisphere rugby for the past couple of years but rumours were swirling that there will be several shock omissions. If it is true that the likes of Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and George Ford are set to miss out (even skipper Dylan Hartley was being rated in some quarters as a “50-50 chance) could that open the door to a Gray brother, a Russell or a Watson? While clearly a talent of immense spark and promise, Russell didn’t do himself any favours with his Twickenham performance, and it would seem more likely that Gatland would prefer Wales pivot Dan Biggar. It may be a Lions tour too soon for the Glasgow 24-year-old.
Richie Gray was there last time under Gatland and, after a lull, has kicked on from around the World Cup and seems back to his best. But the Kiwi coach felt the Scots lock was a bit quiet in Australia four years ago and didn’t put his hand up for Test selection. Jonny Gray has amazed observers with his maturity and relentless consistency over the past couple of years and, despite a recent dip in form, is one of the players who could legitimately ask what more he could do to earn a shot in the famous red jersey.
This is a hard school and, in many positions, such as lock where Ireland’s Iain Henderson has also staked a claim, the competition is intense. England centre Jonathan Joseph tore Scotland to shreds with a sizzling hat-trick in that Calcutta Cup rout but reports yesterday suggested even he may not make it.
Whatever transpires at the Hilton Syon in Brentford this lunchtime, all hopes will not be dashed for those left out. A number of Scots have joined recent Lions tours as injury call-ups – Ross Ford even went on to feature in a Test under those circumstances.
With some full-blooded European and league club rugby still to come the chances are that not all of the expected 38 named today will even make the plane for a tour that is expected to take that ubiquitous buzz phrase “attritional” to a whole new level.