Lions Tour 2021: Warren Gatland explains his decision to pick Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Ali Price for first Test
Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Ali Price will fly the Saltire in Cape Town with Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson likely to see action from the bench.
It is a significant moment for Scottish rugby which has been on the outside looking in for the past 20 years when it comes to the Lions.
You need to go back to Tom Smith in Australia in 2001 for the last time a Scot started a tour Test match, although Richie Gray had a 13-minute cameo off the bench in the decisive third Test win over Australia in 2013.
Gatland’s team for Saturday, which will be captained by Alun Wyn Jones, comprises six players from England and three each from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It will be the first time since the 1997 tour to South Africa that three Scots start a Test for the Lions. On that occasion, current assistant coach Gregor Townsend was named alongside Alan Tait and Smith for the first and second Tests.
Gatland said the spread of nationalities in the side reflects Scotland’s progress under Townsend, particularly in the last year when the national coach guided the side to away wins over Wales, England and France.
“The pleasing thing from my point of view is that I thought the last Six Nations was the closest I’ve seen in a long time,” said Gatland.
“And even though Scotland did finish fourth in the end, another victory and it could have been different. I think they’re on an upward journey and hopefully that continues for them.
“The important thing is that there has been improvement but then it’s about making sure you continue winning those big games and that’s what really matters, and then hopefully winning titles. And that’s when you are able to take your team to the next level.
“And I think at the moment they are in the process of developing some real depth in the squad and hopefully they are able to continue to build on that. That’s the challenge for Scotland going forward but they’ve definitely made improvements over the last four or five years, there’s no doubt about that.”
The trio of Scots starters got the nod in some of the biggest decisions Gatland and his coaching team had to make - and the New Zealander stressed that selection was a joint effort.
Hogg was preferred at full-back to Liam Williams who was the starting 15 in all three Tests in New Zealand four years ago. The Scotland captain, on his third Lions tour, was desperately unlucky to come home early in 2017 after sustaining a serious facial injury and Saturday will be the realisation of a career goal for the Hawick man.
“He’s been very unlucky in that this is his third tour and his first start,” said Gatland. “It was a toss of the coin between him and Liam Williams and we could have gone either way there, but we just felt that for this game, give Stuart that opportunity. He’s had that experience of two previous tours. He’ll hopefully take his chance.”
Price gets the nod at scrum-half ahead of Conor Murray who has gone from being tour captain to having to be content with a place on the bench.
The Glasgow Warriors No 9’s performance in the win over the Stormers last weekend convinced Gatland.
“We’ve been really impressed with him,” said the coach. “I thought his running game against the Stormers was good. There was some nice variation and he was getting the ball away quickly.
“It’s not just about the starting 15. We wanted to make sure the balance was right and how important our bench was going to be with experienced players coming on, so you’ve got players like Conor Murray and Liam Williams and Owen Farrell.”
Van der Merwe’s inclusion ahead of the likes of Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit will raise eyebrows in Wales but the Scotland man’s sheer physicality won the day.
He will be up against Cheslin Kolbe, the lightning quick Springbok talisman who unlocked the Lions defence with an audacious piece of skill to set up Lukhanyo Am’s try during South Africa A’s win last week.
“It’s going to be a real challenge,” Gatland said. “Cheslin had one opportunity in that ‘A’ game and made the most of it. We can’t afford to do what we did in that ‘A’ game and kick the ball down his throat. Hopefully we won’t be giving him as much time and space on the ball on Saturday.”
Gatland said selection had been challenging but it was something he relished because it showed how much quality there was in the squad.
“I asked the coaches to come along with their 23s and we were all different,” he said. “We all had to compromise and that’s the way it should be. I know a lot of people think it’s the team that I select - that’s never been the way with Wales or the Lions. It’s important that as coaches we all have input into the make-up of the squad.
“It was a robust debate. We were an hour and a half in selection. It was the hardest selection meeting I’ve ever been in.”
Gatland was unimpressed that the side had been leaked, causing him to bring forward the team announcement press conference. He said he would take steps to ensure it didn’t happen again.
“I don’t know how that happened,” said the coach. It wasn’t 100 per cent right, but obviously someone has leaked that out, whether that’s on purpose or accidentally or someone has betrayed someone’s trust whether that’s a player or a staff member.
“Next week I’ll just name the team to the players and then name the team to the press straight away.”
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