Is it time to introduce quotas or a minimum number of players that each country should have in the Lions party?
Instinctively I would say no. Picking the best team should be the coach’s only priority. Yet we have all seen the furious reaction north of the border to just two Scots, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg, being included in Warren Gatland’s squad. There is a real danger that the temporary disappointment becomes permanent disillusionment which would strike at the very heart of the Lions concept.
This isn’t a new development. In 2013, Scotland had three representatives in the original party; in 2009, it was two; in 2005, it was three. The difference is that Scotland had a good Six Nations this year. They beat Ireland and Wales, the latter convincingly, so you can understand why they felt they were entitled to more.
But when you examine it on a case by case basis then I don’t see any great anti-Scottish conspiracy. Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and Sean Maitland are all unlucky but no more so than Joe Launchbury. If WP Nel and Greig Laidlaw had stayed healthy during the Six Nations then it may have been a different story. A few close calls undoubtedly favoured Welsh players, but those are guys that Gatland knows and trusts. That’s his prerogative.
There are plenty of dangers with imposing any sort of quota and as a player you would never want to feel that you have been selected because of that. That said I understand the argument. Scotland must feel like they have an equal stake in the Lions. If that ebbs away then the whole edifice starts to crumble.
But I would be amazed if the Lions start the first Test on June 24 without having lost at least 10 players. Even before they get to New Zealand and face all the Super Rugby franchises, probably the majority of Gatland’s squad will be involved in play-offs and European rugby. Injuries are inevitable. I would imagine there are plenty of Scottish players who are the next cab on the rank and who is to say they will not play a huge part in the Test series? Martin Corry was called up as injury cover in 2001 and played in all three Tests while Alex Corbisiero also came in and probably swung the series the Lions’ way against Australia four years ago.
More than any player, I feel the greatest Scottish absence is Gregor Townsend. When I saw the picture of Gatland and his coaching staff I did a double take as it was practically identical to four years ago with Steve Borthwick bolted on. A lot can be said for familiarity and experience but so too freshness and new ideas.
You need a bit of creative tension within the coaching group and someone who will challenge the status quo. Townsend would have done that. The way he thinks about rugby is very different to the rest of that group. Consensus may take longer to reach but more ideas are thrown up as a result.
When you go on the Lions you want to be coached better than you have been before. You want to be challenged. I know that my second Lions tour did not feel as special as the first so that’s where new voices and new ideas are so important. Not having Townsend on board, for whatever reason, feels like a huge opportunity missed.
Saracens must stop Munster momentum in its tracks
Munster v Saracens is pretty much the closest club game you will get to the intensity of a Lions Test. I think it has the makings of an all-time classic: the red juggernaut versus the inexorable black machine.
It will be Munster’s mission to turn the Aviva into Thomond Park for a day and I have no doubt that there will be a see of red. It is going to be an intimidating, emotional environment with Munster still determined to lift the trophy in Axel Foley’s honour.
Many of those Saracens players have had a taste of what is to come from England’s 13-9 defeat to Ireland at the same stadium. A few weeks later, Wasps were blown away by Leinster there too.
Yet if any team thrives on adversity it is Saracens. They are the side all the other English sides dislike. They are the team all the players complain about for shouting during matches and over-celebrating.
Alex Ferguson used to deliberately engineer conflict where there was none to keep that sense of us against the world going for so many years at Manchester United and you can see Saracens using the same strategy.
Against Northampton last week, Billy Vunipola came on as a replacement and immediately got involved in some niggle. He was then lectured by the referee. At the time I thought he was taking his eye off the ball, but actually he was pumping himself up. Like Rocky Balboa hitting himself, he was getting angrier and angrier until he became this monster. Saracens ended up overturning a 13-point lead to win 27-25 in the last minute. Against Munster, however, they will coming up against a team who are feeding off a whole different emotional energy after Axel’s tragic passing.
How Saracens cope with that initial 20 minutes, in which England and Wasps wilted, will determine the contest. They need to stop Munster’s momentum in its tracks. If they build up a head of steam, they will be impossible to stop.
There will be so many fascinating contests. Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan will both have big points to prove after being left out of the Lions squad. I expect them both to have massive games.
Yet the single most important player on the pitch will be Saracens scrum half Richard Wigglesworth, a player I also thought should have been in the Lions reckoning. No other player, not even Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje, makes such a difference to Saracens’ fortunes. He is the pivot around which their kicking game revolves and he will potentially be up against the northern hemisphere’s other best box kicker in Connor Murray, providing he is fit.