But Scotland have transformed themselves into a team that can compete and dominate the best teams in the world, so when Warren Gatland today names his squad to tour South Africa you can bet that every rugby supporter in Scotland will be watching with renewed interest, expecting and hoping for a greater representation this time around.
Four years ago, only two Scots were picked in the initial touring party. This time around I’m certain there will be more. The optimist in me (yes really, there is one) can see as many nine or ten. However, the competition is fierce and realistically I think we are more likely to see four or five. The addition of Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy to the coaching team could be significant in those close-to-call decisions but, if I’m being honest, any Scots on the tour will be there because they’ve earned it with their performances over the last 18 months.
Hamish Watson is the obvious one. He has been consistently excellent and this was recognised when he was voted Six Nations player of the tournament.
The suggestion that Hamish is too small to go up against the Springboks is ludicrous. Anyone who genuinely thinks this is the case is stuck in a bygone era of rugby irrelevance. Size isn’t everything, it’s what you do with it and Hamish is pound for pound one of the most destructive rugby players on the planet right now.
Finn Russell has the talent to claim the No 10 jersey
Defensively, he is an absolute rock and he’s got some of the best attack stats of any player across the Six Nations in the last two years. I genuinely can’t remember the last time he was stopped in a one-on-one tackle. He’s a powerful guy and he’s brilliant on the ground in terms of his turnover skills. He has to go.
Alongside Hamish there are other Scots who I believe are nailed on for selection.
I think Stuart Hogg will go. He’s one of, if not the best 15s in the northern hemisphere at the moment.
And I think Finn Russell will be there, although I believe Dan Biggar is first choice stand-off at the minute. I think Finn will go as the second fly-half but he will have more than enough time to show his skill and talent and prove that he should be wearing the No 10 jersey.
Alongside Russell and Biggar, I’m pretty sure Owen Farrell will be selected. He covers 10 and 12 and, more importantly, he is world class. Good coaches bring the best out of the best players and however indifferent Farrell’s form was for England in the Six Nations, he’s a top top player and someone who will thrive in South Africa.
Then it starts to get interesting. I would take Duhan van der Merwe in a heartbeat. He’s lethal. You see his stats, you see his work on the ball and how difficult he is to stop. That is exactly the type of strike runner you are looking for when you are playing against the world champions. He has areas of his game to improve on, of course he does - he’s still a baby in terms of international rugby - but he would be working with the best coaches in the northern hemisphere and there is no way he would not come home a better all-round player.
Ali Price has got a real chance
I also think Zander Fagerson deserves to go. He is an incredible player whose work around the pitch is like that of a backrow, but he has a lot of stiff competition at tighthead. You’ve got Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Kyle Sinckler and Tomas Francis and you can only take two or three of them.
Ali Price has been playing consistently well for Scotland and scrum-half is a really interesting area. There are a lot of good nines but no-one has really stuck up their hand in the last couple of months and demanded to be picked. Guys like Conor Murray have got a lot of experience and have been there before. There are three Welsh nines who have all shared that role. And with Ben Youngs ruling himself out it is wide open and that’s why I think Ali’s got a real chance. His game has matured brilliantly since establishing himself as Scotland’s first-choice No 9.
Then we’re into the possibles. You’ve got Chris Harris who has probably been Scotland’s best performer alongside Hamish for the past year.
Then there’s Jamie Ritchie who provides real versatility in that he can play six or seven which will be a big thing for the Lions. The likes of Tadhg Beirne and Maro Itoje will go because they can cover second row and back row and give you lots of options.
Jonny Gray has been playing brilliantly well and you see how consistent he is for Exeter but there is a lot of competition in the second row. You’ve got Alun Wyn Jones who is tipped to be captain, Maro, who is probably a shoo-in to start, Beirne, Iain Henderson, James Ryan… a lot of good players. If Jonny is selected it will be fully deserved.
Beware of the bolter
There has been a lot of talk over the last few days and weeks of potential bolters. It’s funny - when the Six Nations finishes, it’s so fresh in everyone’s minds and people are talking about the various Scotland, Welsh and Irish players because they played so well as a team.
Now here we are six or seven weeks later, and all the attention is suddenly turning back to the Premiership and what the English players are doing. Likewise, there are reports on which out of form players should go because they have ‘credit in the bank’ from past seasons.
Undoubtedly, there will be players that go who have not played to their potential this year, just as there will be those who are picked purely on the form of the last few months.
From a Scottish perspective, those not picked today will still have the opportunity to prove themselves. There will be opportunities for other players later in the summer as there will inevitably be injuries within the touring party, particularly for those who go on tour with Scotland.
There are not a lot of Six Nations countries touring this summer due to Covid, but Scotland are going to Romania and Georgia and they’ll be playing internationals right before the Lions Test window so if there are injuries, they might be the guys who are first in line for a call.
In 1997, only five Scots were picked in the initial touring squad yet we often reflect on this tour as Scotland’s last great representation. Ultimately the success of the 2021 tour won’t be determined by how many Scottish players are there but whether those selected grasp the opportunity to immortalise themselves like the Scottish Lions did in South Africa in 1997.