Three decades ago yesterday the British and Irish Lions began a Test series in which a third of the team were Scots.
Hard to believe these days but back then on 1 July 1989 in Sydney, Gavin Hastings, Craig Chalmers, David Sole, Derek White and tour skipper Finlay Calder all took to the field in red jerseys and, not only that, there were four other Scots waiting in the wings.
Scott Hastings came in for the final two Tests as the Lions registered their first ever comeback series win from 1-0 down after that opening 30-12 loss at the Sydney Football Stadium. Chalmers lost his place at stand-off to England’s Rob Andrew and eventual man of the series Mike Teague and another Englishman, Dean Richards, came into the back row.
A brief glimpse at the Wikipedia page of the 1989 tour shows a flurry of Saltires. Calder the skipper, Ian McGeechan the coach, Gavin Hastings the top Test points scorer. And amidst all this, two of Scotland’s most tenacious and legendary players of all time, Kelso’s John Jeffrey and Jed-Forest’s Gary Armstrong, didn’t even manage to feature in the series. Peter Dods of Gala was the ninth Scot on tour.
This week another future Gala Lion, Gregor Townsend, assembles his World Cup training squad for a toasty week of training in the Algarve. He, along with Alan Tait and Tom Smith were part of the legendary band who beat the world champion Springboks in 1997, with Rob Wainwright coming in for the lost third dead rubber.
In the subsequent 22 years only Smith again in 2001, Gordon Bulloch, Chris Cusiter, Simon Taylor, Ross Ford and Richie Gray have featured in a Test series.
This is a World Cup year. The Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 is two years away and Townsend’s focus is where it should be.
It’s unlikely that he will be part of Warren Gatland’s coaching set-up two years after he, unsurprisingly, knocked back the chance to be an assistant to an assistant in the shape of Rob Howley.
“I’m sure I won’t get the offer this time after turning it down last time,” Townsend told the BBC last week. “The Lions has been a big part of my rugby career.
“I managed to go on a tour and it was the ultimate achievement I had in my career. We as coaches and players think very highly of the Lions. Anybody would love to be involved in that.”
Townsend is in no doubt when he looks at his squad that there are future Lions in the making, although knows that recognition has to be earned.
“The northern hemisphere teams have been playing excellent rugby, the teams from Britain and Ireland especially,” Townsend said.
“I think you’ve got the teams ranked second, third, fourth and seventh in the world that form the British and Irish Lions.
“That would never have happened before. Competition for places is stronger than it’s ever been and that makes it a challenge for us as Scots.
“We haven’t won Grand Slams like the other teams over the last few years but I’m a big believer in our players, that they can get on that Lions tour.
“World Cup, Six Nations and beyond, if they’re playing well in those tournaments they’ve got a good chance of going.”
Thirty years ago the Lions were laced with Scottish flavour. That first defeat in Sydney moved on to the famous “Battle of Ballymore” in Brisbane as the second Test was won 19-12.
Back in Sydney, the series was won with a 19-18 victory over the Wallabies on an afternoon to forgot for the great David Campese. “Mickey Mouse rugby” the commentator laments in typically brutal Aussie fashion of the way in which the flamboyant wing recklessly passed behind his own line for Iuean Evans to score the crucial score.
In the south of Portugal this week the Scottish players have only Japan and the dark blue of Scotland on their mind but in a couple of years time it would be nice to think that a Lions squad once again has a tartan influence as strong as the class of ‘89.