Gray could be lone Scot in Lions’ XV, says Hastings

ONLY one Scot has made it into the Lions team which Gavin Hastings believes will take the field for the first Test against Australia this summer. But the former captain of the British and Irish select is hopeful that several members of Scott Johnson’s squad will be included in the tour party, and thinks there is a chance that several other Scots will also be selected.

Reflecting Wales’s victory in this year’s Six Nations Championship, Hastings has chosen eight Welshmen in his XV, including all but two of the backs. Ireland are represented by two members of the front row and two backs, England by two forwards – and Scotland only by one lock, Richie Gray.

Having made eight changes from the Lions team since he first selected one before last year’s Autumn Tests, Hastings knows there is still some time to go before head coach Warren Gatland has to settle on his own Test side. But, with the 35-man squad due to be announced at the end of this month, he fears that Scots will have little further chance to stake a claim for a seat on the plane to Australia.

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“The problem for Scottish players is there’s not much rugby to be played before the squad is announced,” said Hastings, who represented his country 61 times, 20 as captain. “But I’m hopeful that three or four will be chosen for the squad, and at a push we may get five or six places.

“As well as Richie Gray, who I’ve chosen in my Test team, I think Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland will go on tour after a fine Six Nations campaign. There’s a good chance for Greig Laidlaw, and one of our front rows should go as well – Euan Murray or maybe Ryan Grant, who has impressed me in recent matches. Ross Ford may get in, and Kelly Browm might be considered.

“It would be great if Tim Visser got in as well as his two back-three colleagues, Hogg and Maitland. But it will be hard for him, and even harder for the other Scots I haven’t mentioned.”

There are several potential captains in Hastings’ team, though at present his pick would be Brian O’Driscoll, whom he expects to rise to the occasion after a relatively quiet Six Nations. “I think it’s too early to write off O’Driscoll. I’m sure he has four or five big games left in him. I’ve not put his name in my team lightly. He’s an incredibly competitive person, and what better way to round off his career than with a series win?

“It’s going to be incredibly tight, as the two previous tours to Australia were, and I’m sure the Wallabies can raise their game and be very competitive. But I think it’s possible that the Lions could win the series 3-0 – which I don’t think the Australians could do.”

Hastings’ back row of Sam Warburton, Chris Robshaw and Justin Tipuric looks particularly strong, especially as the Wallabies’ most influential back-row player, openside David Pocock, has been ruled out by injury. But the Scot understands there may be a comeback for the man who preceded Pocock in the gold No 7 jersey.

“I was talking to [former Wallabies captain] George Gregan recently, and he told me they may well play George Smith. That would be an incredible achievement if it happens – the man who played against the Lions 12 years ago making a comeback for this series.”

Smith, who is contracted to Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath, has yet to discuss a comeback with Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. Before he could add to his 110 caps, the Australian Rugby Union would have to change a ruling which prevents the selection of players contracted to overseas clubs, but the prospect of a comeback has added an intriguing twist to debates about how the series will go.

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An ambassador for HSBC, the Lions’ principal sponsor, Hastings will be at Stirling County tomorrow to help run the club’s annual Youth Rugby Festival. Four participants between the ages of seven and 18 will win a chance to become an “HSBC Cub” – spending a day with the Lions along with young people from similar rugby festivals in the other home countries.

“HSBC have always made sure their sponsorships filter down to grass-roots level, and I suggested they work with Stirling County,” he explained. “The club have done wonders over the last 20 or 30 years to promote rugby in general, and their mini- and midi-rugby sections in particular.”

Hastings is also one of the organisers behind a charity dinner in Edinburgh next Thursday, at which guests will vote for their top ten Scottish Lions. Gatland is expected to attend the event, the HSBC Legends of the Lions Dinner at the Sheraton Hotel, and other celebrated internationals such as Andy Irvine, Finlay Calder and Ken Scotland are also scheduled to be there.

The dinner is in aid of Parkinson’s charity Funding Neuro and the awareness-raising organisation Wobbly Williams – two bodies which are close to Hastings’ heart, as his wife, Diane, has Parkinson’s. Last year Hastings and his friend Bryn Williams. who also has the condition, climbed Kilimanjaro as part of a fundraising venture.

Hastings’ XV: Halfpenny, North, O’Driscoll, Roberts, Cuthbert, Sexton, Phillips; Healy, Best, Jones, Gray, Launchbury, Warburton, Tipuric, Robshaw