For those of us north of the border, Scotland’s involvement – or lack thereof – with the hotly-contested British and Irish Lions tour of Australia is a touchy subject. As the team sheet was read out this morning for the third and final test match in Sydney, it became clear our hopes of a test Lion now rest solely on the sizeable shoulders of Richie Gray. This is an altogether familiar situation. For the past decade, our national team has been at best disappointing, and at worst atrocious. Our pro teams have only twice graced the latter stages of the Heineken Cup, and our structure from grass-roots up is light years behind those of the top-tier nations.
We’ve been inconsistent at the highest level, failed to capitalise on promising performances, and are perpetually labelled with the dreaded “gallant losers” tag. That we contributed at first only three tourists to the party shows just how poorly our game is thought of by those from the other home nations and beyond. Is our rugby really that bad? Or do we have cause to feel aggrieved?
Examining those three tourists, one – Sean Maitland – is a New Zealander, and would certainly never have been tempted by a move to Glasgow had he been in Graham Henry’s All Blacks plans. Richie Gray has been picked on reputation rather than current form, after a disappointing Six Nations curtailed by injury. Stuart Hogg, one of Scotland’s brightest young talents, has merited selection, but has been done a terrible disservice by being asked to play in a position he has not fulfilled since schoolboy level. This was exacerbated against the ACT Brumbies, where Hogg’s backline was made up almost exclusively of fresh call-ups whom he was barely able to train with, and had certainly never played alongside. The startling lack of cohesion between the Scot and those outside him went some way to deciding the outcome of that particular clash.
The one Scottish call-up, prop Ryan Grant, should frankly have made the original touring party after an excellent start to his international career, and two consistently impressive seasons with Glasgow Warriors. Ironically, this time last year, he was turning in his best international showing to date in a victory over Australia last summer, where the Scottish front row gave their opponents a torrid time. He is frequently among the top tacklers in the national team and chips in with an impressive number of assists for the Warriors. He even managed to cross the try line twice in a thumping victory over the Ospreys last season – a game in which he got the better of his much-lauded Lions colleague Adam Jones in the scrum. Very few looseheads in world rugby can boast that particular feat on their CV. Indeed, Grant has yet to be embarrassed by any of the big-name tightheads he has come up against for club and country; a list that includes, among others, Jones, Ben Franks, Jannie Du Plessis and Mike Ross.
That he was initially ignored again at the expense of Alex Corbisiero, who has barely played a game all season, was extremely disappointing – although Corbisiero has since more than justified his selction with his performances Down Under. That he was left as an unused substitute last week while Mako Vunipola floundered in the scrum – an area pinpointed as one of Grant’s key strengths – and then tired in the loose was questionable to most. In an era where the full repertoire of front-row replacements are invariably utilised, the decision to leave Grant sitting on his bahookie (backside in Scottish, for the uninitiated) was indicative of the lack of faith Warren Gatland and Graham Rowntree are willing to place in the Scottish contingent. Those south of the border and beyond who, rightly or wrongly, may be largely ignorant of the Fifer’s abilities can be excused. An international coaching team certainly cannot.
The likes of Euan Murray, Jim Hamilton and Greig Laidlaw may also be justly disappointed at their exclusion from the touring party. Gatland’s selection of the retired Matt Stevens ahead of Murray was particularly surprising, and sends a terrible message to those who missed out. With the lineout misfiring terribly in Melbourne, the scrum at times struggling, and the Lions desperately seeking some go-forward with ball in hand, Hamilton’s impressive Six Nations performances obviously went unnoticed.
The Kiwi also chose to call up Englishman Christian Wade, who had barely made his test debut, ahead of the likes of Tim Visser who has been prolific since signing for Edinburgh, and is beginning to show his finishing prowess on the international stage. Youngster Matt Scott, the standout performer in his country’s tour of South Africa, was overlooked at the expense of the inexperienced Billy Twelvetrees, and the stodgy Brad Barritt. These three, fresh off the plane for the Brumbies defeat alongside the retired Shane Williams were unsurprisingly unable to form any sort of structured attacking combination with Hogg.
The Lions, of course, despite the four-union makeup, are an outfit selected entirely on merit. Rightly so, and Scottish rugby has not – as we are fond of saying north of the border – set the proverbial heather alight of late. However, Gatland’s startling ignorance of our potential offerings, made all the more glaring given how the first two test-matches have played out, only serves to remind us of the low esteem our game is held in by the rest of the rugby community.
As we approach the end of a tour that, for Scottish rugby, has been a tiresome, drawn-out kick in the teeth, it is left to Scott Johnson’s men to respond in kind the only way they can: by showing on the pitch next season just what Gatland, his unfounded call-ups, selections and false perceptions missed out on.
By Jamie Lyall
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images