Gareth Dyer's rugby column

After months of speculation and conjecture we finally have the detail on who is to represent the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand this summer.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 20th April 2017, 1:35 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:36 pm
Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton alongside tour manager John Spencer (right)
Lions head coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton alongside tour manager John Spencer (right)

The biggest talking point appeared to be around the national breakdown of the squad with the initial touring party having 16 Englishmen, 12 Welsh, 11 Irish and 2 Scots.

As I said many months ago in this column, domestic and international competitions in this campaign were all
 trials and sideshows in which every performance and result was analysed in the form of a Lions context.

And in the end, it was one performance and result that probably explains why the current make-up of the party – and I say current because I reckon there will be a minimum of seven cal-ups by the time the Lions play their first test – contains only two Scots in Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. And that was down to their humiliation at Twickenham.

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Those fans who point out that Scotland beat both Ireland and Wales, and that it is wrong that those sides have 23 players selected on a combined basis, are missing some very clear signals that were evident during the Six Nations. Quite simply, it is easy to perform when there is no pressure of expectation.

Against both Ireland and Wales, Scotland were at home and the talk about their chances was centred on whether they could add results to performance.

Scotland have improved under the astute coaching leadership of Vern Cotter and in the Six Nations they needed results to move them to the next level.

But they were not being talked about as realistic champions and hence were not operating under the same pressure as England, Ireland or Wales were.

Against Ireland and Wales, the Scots played some nice rugby. A strong opening quarter and composed last 10 minutes against Ireland gave them a splendid win, whilst a strong second-half showing accounted for a Welsh team that had been in first-half ascendency.

But both wins came at home and were games where they absorbed long spells of pressure before striking back to take a win.

Against Ireland, the Scots defended for virtually an hour and their defensive stats were through the roof. Against Wales, man of the match Hamish Watson was rewarded for his ability to stop Wales at the breakdown.

In neither game, could it be argued that Scotland had long periods of control. They didn’t have the dominant individuals or units that would suggest that their players would be picked in greater numbers.

Those victories did provide them a shot at a first Triple Crown in years but suddenly there was something new for this Scottish team to deal with. The pressure of expectancy.

The Lions selectors must have been rubbing their hands with glee. They would find out more in those 80 minutes about how good some of the Scottish players have become. Even a close defeat where the game was in the balance until the latter stages would have suggested some real substance was now in place North of the Border.

Unfortunately, the Scottish display at Twickenham was as inept as it was possible to be. Shipping 60 points to an England team that didn’t need to get anywhere near top gear to brush the visitors to one side, told the Lions selectors more about the mental strength of the Scottish players than winning in the comfort of their own back yard when the stakes were somewhat lower.

Only Finn Russell got anywhere near to his best on the day but the paucity of the Scots midfield defence 
provided enough doubt to temper his Lions claims.

The matches between England, Ireland and Wales were intense games with the result in each in doubt right up to the final whistle. The matches between these three sides could have gone either way and were all played under a pressure of expectation.

It was those games that gave the Lions selectors more of an insight as to how those players will handle the pressure of a Lions tour to New Zealand.

The real selection dilemmas would have been about the claims of players from those three countries rather than the gamble of taking promising newcomers.

The last Lions tour to New Zealand was a disaster and was as poor a Lions tour as there has been. Hence 
continuity of selecting the same coaching staff, same captain and 16 tourists who went in 2013 will provide valuable experience of what a Lions Tour involves.

New Zealand is not a place to take bolters. Whilst Scotland’s improvement in this year’s Six Nations is to be welcomed in terms of an improved tournament for future years, it is only one campaign.