The Breakdown | Scotland’s Lions prospects boosted by stirring success against England
It is an understatement to say Scotland have not had the lion’s share when it comes to the British & Irish Lions. In the Six Nations era, one player has started a Test match, the prop Tom Smith who was an ever-present in the 2001 Test series in Australia.
Since then, Scotland have supplied, and then infrequently, players to the bench. On the past four tours, they have had six replacements, three of whom came on: the second row Richie Gray was the last, 13 minutes from the end of the final Test in Australia eight years ago.
The 180 starting players on the tours from 2005 have been made up of 71 from Wales, 59 from England and 50 from Ireland. Ten Scotland internationals were original picks for the four trips, the same number as Wales provided for the third and decisive Test in 2013.
When Ian McGeechan was the head coach on the previous tour to South Africa in 2009, two Scotland players were named in the 37-strong squad: the forwards Euan Murray and Nathan Hines. Eight years later, Scotland’s two picks out of 41 players were backs, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, although three colleagues were called up.
It has been unfortunate for Scotland that those Lions tours have fallen in year swhen they play England and France away in the Six Nations: until last weekend, they had not recorded a victory in either fixture this century and they won in Twickenham and Paris in the same tournament once, back in 1926. In one of the campaigns before the past four tours have they finished in credit: that was 2017 when they won three matches, but the magnitude of their defeat at Twickenham, 61-21, wiped out any gains garnered by defeating Wales and Ireland.
This year may be different after Scotland, who had not won away in the Six Nations other than in Rome since 2010 before they overcame Wales in Llanelli last October, last weekend achieved their first victory over England at Twickenham since 1983.
It was the first time they had won away on the opening weekend in the Six Nations and if 11-6 indicates a close encounter, they held England at arm’s length throughout. The hosts only threatened the try line once, in the opening minutes, and were not often within penalty goal range, so the size of the lead did not matter.
The Lions head coach Warren Gatland was at Twickenham. When he was in charge of Wales between 2008 and 2019, he never experienced defeat against Scotland: the 29-13 loss at Murrayfield occurred when he was on sabbatical with the Lions, preparing for the 2017 tour to New Zealand.
A few months ago, Eddie Jones was not ruling out between 20 and 25 of his players being selected by the Lions, but Scotland would have caught Gatland’s attention last year. They lost their opening two games then, but both by seven points: to Ireland in Dublin when Hogg lost control of the ball in the act of touching it down, and to England at home in the middle of a storm. They then beat Italy and France before lockdown and finished with a first victory in Wales since 2002.
It was another close scoreline, 14-10, but again Scotland had few alarms in the final minutes and were worthy winners. They have now won four in a row in the Six Nations for the first time and the number of their Test contenders should far exceed the couple of players they have averaged in the previous four squads.
There has only been one round and the test for Scotland is to come. It was only a week ago that bookmakers were predicting Scotland would finish one above Italy in fifth: that could still happen, but it is unlikely given the improvement in a significant area they have made since the World Cup.
Steve Tandy took over as defence coach at the end of 2019 and since then, they have conceded five tries in six matches in the Six Nations. England may not offer the greatest attacking threats in possession, but they are effective on the counterattack. Scotland gave them nothing at Twickenham after Ali Price’s early kick was charged down by Maro Itoje.
In past encounters England had tended to dominate possession with Scotland living off meagre rations and looking to Finn Russell or Hogg to produce something outrageous. It was England who were forced into desperate measures and the composure and assurance Scotland showed, together with their resourcefulness at forward, will not have been lost on Gatland. Their task now is to follow it up, starting with Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday.
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