It’s hard to see just what Warren Gatland could learn from such a replay. Of course, on the old full-length tours in the amateur days there were times when the Lions rang up big scores and handsome victories, often in the midweek matches against weaker provinces, but these were offset by demanding Saturday matches offering the best preparation for the Tests to come.
This time it’s all different of course. Clearly the Lions management believe that any match is better than none, even though, with South Africa’s intended warm-up against Georgia cancelled, it seems as if the home team will come to the Tests even worse prepared than the Lions.
That is, assuming we ever get there. At the moment, despite the stout denial being issued by the Lions management, echoed, I think, by the South African authorities, this is looking far from certain.
When you win by around 40 points and your wings or full-backs are cantering in tries all but unopposed as Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe have been doing, it’s difficult for anyone to think he has played himself into the Test side. On the other hand, anyone who seems to be struggling against mediocre opposition may well be in danger of playing himself out of it.
Mako Vunipola may now find himself in that position. He had a hard time of it in the set scrum, being penalised twice, his feet being too far back. He is a very fine player beyond the scrum, his running and handling sure, his tackling powerful. But he has never been the greatest scrummager. Many in England think Joe Marler better in the set piece.
When the prop on one side of the front row is in trouble, it’s hard for his partner on the other to shine. So Vunipola’s troubles made life harder for Zander Fagerson, and when Rory Sutherland and Tadhg Furlong came on to replace them, the Lions scrum went much better. Furlong is probably a sure selection for the first Test, while Sutherland, with a 50-yard break, is reminding the coach that his qualities extend well beyond the set-piece. At the moment he look as likely as anyone to be in the starting XV for the first Test.
No doubt the players and their interim coach Mike Blair are disappointed that there will now be no Scottish international matches this summer, but some of the players will probably benefit more from somewhat a longer rest. Next season, now not far off, is going to be a testing time for both Edinburgh and Glasgow who will benefit from having a somewhat longer spell of time-off.
Meanwhile, there has been more disappointment for Scotland’s under-20 squad who like being left eating cold porridge with a wooden spoon in the Under-20 Six Nations. One can recognise that they have all been short of match rugby in this weirdest of years, but the same is surely the case with their opponents also.
In one sense the results of under-20 rugby tell us little about future prospects. It has always been the case that only some junior internationalists will go on to have a successful professional career; some indeed may not want that and opt for another sort of career and amateur club rugby. Then if you consider that international careers may last for ten years and sometimes more, Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott, Duncan Weir, Henry Pyrgos, Lee Jones and Rob Harley all, for instance, first picked for Scotland in 2012, you realise that vacancies don’t open as readily as they did in the amateur days. Of course the fact that there are more international matches now and in every Test more than 20 players will usually be capped, there are also more chances to play for Scotland than there used to be. So things even up.
All the same, it must be a bit worrying to find our under-20 and other age-group sides struggling and all too often losing heavily. We don’t yet seem to have a structure that enables us to be truly competitive in age-group rugby. Importing more South Africans to bolster our pro teams isn’t a satisfactory alternative to developing home-bred talent. We really should be asking why they seem to do things better in Ireland ,and looking to see what we can learn from the Irish. Or indeed, on the evidence of recent under-20 results, from the Italians.