The year was 2005, the place was Auckland’s Eden Park and the event was the third and final Test match between Clive Woodward’s British and Irish Lions and the all-conquering All Blacks. The end of that particular tour couldn’t come quickly enough for the visiting players, with one possible exception.
With the clock running down in the third Test, Scottish hooker Gordon Bulloch was whistled off the substitutes’ bench to replace Ireland’s Shane Bryne and the entire press gallery rose as one to offer a less than rousing rendition of “Flower of Scotland” to celebrate, if that is the word, the only Scot to feature in any of the three Tests.
Fast forward to the present and Bulloch looks in good nick, almost as if he could slot back into the front row where he made such a name for himself with 75 Scotland appearances to sit alongside his two for the Lions, having appeared in Brisbane four years earlier. Sadly he is what passes for an experienced Scottish Lion these days and he was rolled out yesterday to face the inevitable inquisition regarding the paltry number of Scots to have elbowed their way on to the plane. Is there a danger that the Scots will feel disenfranchised from the whole “all for one” philosophy of the Lions?
“To an extent yes, but once the red jersey is put on then everyone out there feels like you have gone out there to play against New Zealand, whether that be a provincial side or the Test side,” replies Bulloch .
“Hopefully the two guys we have got going can be real stars of the tour and really carry the Scottish public along. And for the last umpteen tours there has been a lot of injuries, and that’s where maybe a few Scots have found their way on to sides, where I found my way on to the side in 2001 and managed to pick up a Test appearance.
“So hopefully we can get a little drip feed in that way. Certainly it would be good for Scotland having maybe five or six guys with Lions experience going into Gregor’s [Townsend] reign as coach.
“There are several players who I think would have been a toss of the coin. Jonny Gray had a great chance, Hamish Watson had a good chance, Finn Russell had a great chance. But unfortunately that’s the way Lions selections go.
“He [Warren Gatland] has obviously gone for a lot of size. He will need to get basics right. In 2005 they changed the lineout calls six days before the first Test because they thought the New Zealanders had infiltrated the camp. And that kind of set the tone for the series, we lost a lot of lineout ball first off.
“So first off they will have to say, listen, we need to front up physically. That means scrummage getting it right, lineout getting it right, driving getting it right. Then you have got to somehow take New Zealand on at their own game. If you go and try and strangle it, it will be difficult. You have got to have parity in the set-piece and then try and test them with ball-runners and recycle ball quickly.”
Then it is pointed out that Scotland beat Wales with something to spare at Murrayfield and the Welsh boast 12 tourists on this trip to Scotland’s two.
“Look who is picking the side!” counters Bulloch.
“Until we have a really big year with Scotland, until we start winning silverware, I think that’s not going to change, our contribution is going to remain at this level.”
According to one reliable source Gatland didn’t even pick former Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s brains regarding the Scottish candidates, which is either strikingly arrogant or perhaps simply honest since it seems he would have ignored the advice in any case.
The truth is that Scottish rugby has been through some miserable times in the last decade or more: Croke Park 2010 remains the Scots’ last away win in the Six Nations excepting Rome.
As a result the Scots were relegated to standalone Tests against the big three from south of the equator and have not toured New Zealand since 2000 when they lost the two internationals by a combined score of 117-34, matches Bulloch can recall.
In contrast Wales were there only last summer and while Scotland’s former Lion insists that this lack of experience didn’t count against the class of 2017, it certainly can’t have helped any.