First, Scotland have played well at Murrayfield, but not away, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Lions will be playing in New Zealand, about as far away from home as you can get. Fair point, especially in view of the catastrophe at Twickenham. On the other hand, if you discount matches in Rome, there was only one away win in the Six Nations, England’s in Cardiff. So Wales with their 12 Lions lost both at home and away.
Second, Scotland, according to Gatland, are a good team short of outstanding individuals. This is arguable, but you might turn the criticism on its head and say that, on a Lions tour, the ability to be a team player may be just as valuable as individual brilliance.
Third, Scotland, he explained, haven’t toured in New Zealand since 2000. Why this should be held against Scottish players today is a mystery. The other three Lions countries have all of course played Tests in New Zealand – and all lost.
There might have been more Scots in the party but for injuries to Alistair Dickinson, Willem Nel, Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones. We can’t tell. In truth, however, few of us will complain much about most of Gatland’s selections. It’s the selection of 12 Welshmen that sticks in the craw, given their defeat at Murrayfield and the fact that Wales scored only eight tries in the Six Nations, three of them in Rome.
Now it’s understandable that a coach should favour players he has worked with and trusts. Still, bearing in mind that four years ago Gatland criticised a former Wales and Lions coach, Graham Henry (a fellow Kiwi)for having selected too many Welsh players who simply weren’t good enough for the 2001 Lions, it occurred to me to ask a few friends and enthusiasts how many of Gatland’s dozen would get into the Scotland side or into a composite Scotland-Wales one.
Now most of those I asked are Scots and accordingly not free of bias (no more free of bias than Gatland himself, you may say). The lowest figure was three, the highest eight, which included Toby Faletau and Ross Moriarty who play in the same position (No 8) and therefore don’t both start. One correspondent, impartial as being neither Scots nor Welsh, had six of Gatland’s dozen in a composite side; then hesitated over his original choice of Dan Biggar rather than Finn Russell at 10. A question of steadiness or flair. One retired Scottish international, while preferring Finn, remarked that Biggar was a player who tends to raise his game on big occasions.
Biggar was, incidentally, the only one of the 2013 Wales XV that beat England 30-3 whom Gatland didn’t pick for the Lions that year.
Of course, all these selections are made on the assumption that everyone under consideration is fit. If you take injured Scots out of consideration and measure the Welsh 12 against the Scotland team that finished the Six Nations, the balance would shift a little in favour of Gatland’s chosen ones. (But two of the injured Scots are props and there are no props among Gatland’s Welsh dozen.) In any case, the verdict delivered by those I consulted is clear: Gatland has chosen 12 Welsh players, at least half of whom, in our opinion, are not as good as the Scots to whom they have been preferred.
Of these, Welshmen Sam Warburton as captain will surely start the First Test. So, probably, will George North, whose uncertainty under the high ball and weak tackling (exposed by Tim Visser at Murrayfield) mean he will surely be targeted by the All Blacks. Liam Williams might get a look-in, but competition on the wing is stiff from Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour, perhaps Elliot Daly too, though I think he is named as a centre.
One of my correspondents suggests that Rhys Webb might force is way in. Gatland likes Jonathan Davies, despite his very poor Six Nations. But the first Test XV will surely be dominated by English and Irish players and nobody can sensibly complain if this is the case. No Irishman can be considered fortunate to be in the party, and perhaps only one Englishman – Ben Youngs, a fine scrum-half when his forwards are on top, a weak one if they aren’t.
There are always hard-luck stories when a Lions squad is picked, not only Scottish ones. This time Joe Launchbury, after an outstanding Six Nations, is as entitled as any Scot to feel aggrieved, while I find the selection of Jonathan Davies rather than the young Irish star Garry Ringrose to be frankly weird.
Still, that’s how it is now. There will be injuries of course. So who knows what the team will look like in a couple of months?