The Scotland Lions contenders that Warren Gatland can’t ignore

The morning after the night before and Gregor Townsend could be forgiven for feeling a little groggy. The stunning last-gasp victory over France had been celebrated long into the night but the Scotland coach was clear-headed enough as he reflected on his side’s performances in a Guinness Six Nations campaign which saw the Scots win in London and Paris in the same season for the first time since 1926.

Scotland players celebrate with the Auld Alliance Trophy after the win over France in Paris. How many of them will be on the Lions plan to South Africa this summer?
Scotland players celebrate with the Auld Alliance Trophy after the win over France in Paris. How many of them will be on the Lions plan to South Africa this summer?

With a Lions tour on the horizon, Townsend was asked if the performances should lead to Warren Gatland picking plenty of Scots for the flight to South Africa.

“Absolutely,” Townsend said emphatically. “Going into the [France] game, we talked to our players and from a stats point of view we felt we were the two best teams – attack and defence stats we were first and second with France in most of the categories – so if you are looking at stats then our players are as good as any out there in the championship.

“If you are looking at wins: to win in France and win in London, no team has done that during the last two years, but our teams have. If you are going to look at playing one of the best teams in the world in South Africa, our players have won out there whether it is with crowds or not, so you’ve got to then say that the players have put themselves in position to be on that tour.

“There will be a few head-to-heads for selection, no doubt, but I felt on Friday night, in the Twickenham game and even the Wales game where we played well for a lot of the match, our players have put their hands up, and now it will just go down to selection.

“But I’m sure we have made it a lot tougher than it was four years ago, and four years before that.”

Gatland, about to embark on his third tour of duty as Lions head coach, has hardly been a friend to Scotland when it comes to team selection. You have to go back eight years for the last time a Scot played a Test match for the Lions - Richie Gray, as a 67th minute replacement against Australia - but surely even he will find it hard to ignore the claims of the following contenders:

Stuart Hogg

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend says his players deserve Lions recognition. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The Scotland captain has been selected for the last two tours but has not made the Test team. Four years ago in New Zealand his tour was cut short due to a facial injury.

Hogg has had an outstanding Six Nations and now appears a stick-on to play full-back in the Lions Test side in South Africa.

“This season he has moved on as a leader,” said Townsend. “He has really stepped up as a person and captain and brought other people into leadership roles. Against England he was outstanding, among the best he has ever played for Scotland. He is growing into a really great Scotland captain.”

Duhan van der Merwe

Duhan van der Merwe scored two tries against France to finish as the top try-scorer in this season's Six Nations. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

The winger finished the Six Nations as the tournament’s top try scorer and put himself in the frame for Lions selection after less than a year of international rugby. His try double in Paris came six days after another brace against Italy and he also supplied the all important score against England at Twickenham, giving him five for the Championship and a total of eight in only ten Scotland Test appearances.

According to Opta stats, van der Merwe beat 31 defenders in this year’s Six Nations, surpassing Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 30 for the most in a single edition of the tournament which he set in 2000.

“To be up there already in your first Six Nations and go past someone who is a legend. That’s phenomenal,” said Townsend.

Chris Harris

Understated excellence has been Harris’ stock-in-trade. Garners none of the plaudits lavished upon Hogg and Finn Russell but the outside centre is always one of the first names down on Townsend’s team-sheet. Provides the defensive solidity which allows the creatives to do their stuff.

“Chris has been great for the last couple of years,” said the Scotland coach. “He defends well and that is a huge part of winning Test matches. We knew the challenge the French would bring in that 13 channel and their wings. He brings more than just defence. He brings focus in attack too.”

Finn Russell

A red card against France shouldn’t take the shine of another fine performance from the stand-off. Russell had a (very) brief taste of the Lions when he was called up as cover during the 2017 tour and made an appearance off the bench against Hurricanes in a 31-31 draw. At 28, Russell is in his prime but Johnny Sexton’s outstanding form in the Six Nations will have given Gatland plenty to ponder. The Irishman is 35 but has plenty left in the tank and it looks like a three-way fight between Sexton, Russell and Wales’ Dan Biggar for the Test No 10 jersey.

Hamish Watson

The one-man wrecking ball’s performances have left even Townsend open-mouthed at times.

“What a Six Nations he’s had,” said the Scotland coach. “He’s been really consistent and he gives you more than a usual openside with his ball carrying. I don’t think he missed a tackle and he’s been very accurate there.“He runs hard into contact and can bounce out of tackles. That’s the best I’ve seen him play on a consistent basis.”

Jamie Ritchie

Maybe didn’t have the same impact as Edinburgh team-mate Watson, but Ritchie is another of the unflashy stalwarts of this team. The flanker’s work at the breakdown is fundamentally important and was best summed up in the way he won a first-half penalty in Paris which extended Scotland’s lead.

Rory Sutherland

The big Hawick prop ended up in hospital in Paris after a shoulder injury against France. He will undergo a scan back in Scotland and Townsend is hoping the loosehead’s Lions chances won’t be affected.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” said the coach. “I really feel for him. His performance on Friday night on the back of the last two years in the Six Nations has put him in a very good position to go on the Lions, so let’s hope he’s not out for any length of time that puts that under pressure.”

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