Former England international and rugby writer Stuart Barnes reckons only three Scots should make the Lions party to Australia this year: lock Richie Gray, scrum half Greig Laidlaw and fullback Stuart Hogg. Former England number eight Lawrence Dallaglio also thinks only three Scots will tour, but his picks are: Gray, tighthead Euan Murray and winger Sean Maitland. Meanwhile Sunday Times sports writer Stephen Jones believes four Scots should go down under: number eight Johnnie Beattie, Gray, Maitland and Laidlaw.
Such a poor representation on a united British Isles and Ireland squad would be pretty hard on a team finishing third in the Six Nations, particularly with Ireland – who finished just off the bottom – boasting many more Lions, according to those experts.
Scotland have been poorly represented on the last few Lions tours and, in many ways, this was right. Scotland seemed to finish bottom, or next to bottom, of the Six Nations in most years of the last decade so couldn’t hope to get many players on a Lions tour. But this year there has been much needed improvement. The result should be a Lions representation of five, six or even seven Scots. If ten or so Irish players get the nod and there are only a few Scots then that will be a clear – and somewhat unfair – reward for past ability rather than current form.
The tour party will be, rightly, dominated by the Welsh, with the English – who had just as many wins this year as the Welsh – also having decent number in the party.
As for the Scots, there should be five going: Gray, fellow lock Jim Hamilton and flanker Kelly Brown from the forwards with Laidlaw and Hogg from the backs. None of the experts mentioned Hamilton but his lineout work has been immense all championship, he pushes his not considerable weight in the scrums and he has made an awful nuisance himself in the loose too. If there was an award for the most improved Scottish player, he would get it and acts as a good counter balance to the new crop of athletic, pacey locks like Gray and Joe Launchbury.
Laidlaw has matured greatly since playing fly half for a season and is now the best tactical scrum half in the Six Nations. He does not have much of a break and his defending sometimes lets himself down but, as a kicking, organising and leading scrum half, there are none better – as his performance against France showed (he can also kick accurately from the tee and cover fly half as well).
Brown has all the makings of a dirt-track, mid-week leader: a no-nonsense player who does all the hard graft time and again and then again. He faces tough competition to get into the Lions back row squad but should travel, if only for his astonishing tackle and turnover rate this season. If these five do go then several others could count themselves very unlucky: the entire front row, for example.
Murray and Ford have been Lions before and both could edge out their British and Irish counterparts but may just miss out.
Beattie is the fastest and best ball-playing number eight in the championship but, with only two number eights set to travel, he has a job displacing one of Toby Faletau and Tom Wood (with Ben Morgan waiting off stage).
Matt Scott is rapidly making the Scotland 12 shirt his own and his break and set-up for Tim Visser’s try against France showed what a classy centre he is with the ball. But he was made to look defensively naïve against Ireland and, with Manu Tulaigi, Jamie Roberts, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Davies all vying to keep Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy from travelling, he is unlikely to get on the plane.
Scotland’s back three have been excellent all season and Maitland may just squeeze on to the plane, but he may be kept out if Hogg is seen as a utility back who can cover the wings as well as fullback. Visser is undoubtedly one of the best finishers in world rugby but his defence is still a work in progress and although the left wing is not as competitive as other positions on tour, he may not make it this time.
So my best guess for the tour party – based entirely on the Six Nations, not on those yet to recover from injury and players who didn’t feature – is as follows:
1. Cian Healey and Gethin Jenkins.
2. Richard Hibbard and Rory Best.
3. Adam Jones and Dan Cole.
4. Joe Launchbury and Richie Gray.
5. Alan Wyn Jones and Jim Hamilton.
6. Justin Tipuric and Chris Robshaw.
7. Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien.
8. Toby Faletau and Tom Wood.
9. Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs.
10. Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell.
11. George North and Stuart Hogg.
12. Jamie Roberts and Brad Barritt.
13. Manu Talaigi and Jonathan Davies
14. Alex Cuthbert and Simon Zebo.
15. Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney.
Others: Matt Stevens, Tom Youngs, Kelly Brown, Greig Laidlaw and Alex Goode.
Representation: Wales – 13, England – 11, Ireland – 6, Scotland 5.
The captaincy should be between Robshaw and Warburton, with Robshaw getting the nod (as long as he plays at six to accommodate Warburton).