By Alan Dymock
AS OF Tuesday, everyone in Scotland was a mathematician.
Three. Three Scottish Lions. Half of all the Tigers; half the number of Leinstermen; one fifth the number of Welshmen; one less than all the squawking Ospreys; one less than all the players born in New Zealand, though one of those gentlemen straddles the two.
The parochial outbursts were to be expected. Despite the pretence of impartiality, you would struggle to find someone who did not consider a few squad places should go to someone from their country, if only because they had seen them at close quarters more often and knew their strengths better than, “obviously”, Warren Gatland.
However, like that odd sock you pick up at the laundrette these fellas are all yours now. They are all Lions and when the pressure builds you will have to shout for all of them, whatever regional twang your accent has.
For that reason, you must judge Gatland on his and the Lions’ actions. By all means question the breakdown of his squad. After all, only having two specialist fly-halves is something worth poking your nose at and tutting about. If only to protect Stuart Hogg.
Oh boy, here comes another parochial lapse… With the issue of Stuart Hogg – last an impish stand-off in his early teens – there needs to be some protecting done.
With only the three (count ‘em) Scots, there is no senior voice there to sternly warn Gatland not to mess Hogg about. The Hawick-born full-back was heavily praised on Tuesday, as his talent demands. Nevertheless, talent does not mean he can be thrown in expected to carry the hopes of four countries.
Of course, Andy Irvine is a manager who has been there and done it, breaking into the Lions Test team at full-back despite the presence of the great JPR Williams. He also has an invisible little bond with Hogg, with both having run out in the blue and white hoops of Heriot’s in their careers.
Irvine has to oversee an entire tour, though, and having shown he fully believes in Hogg’s ability and the Glasgow Warrior himself insisting he will play wherever the team need him means that he is at the mercy of the selectors.
Turning 21 on tour and with so much potential the young man could, if handled poorly, be damaged by this tour. That may sound like a negative stance considering the tour has not even left yet, but if he plays here, there and everywhere, and is made the playmaker early on, there could be too much expectation and too little experience to stop Hogg’s mind from denting.
Had Kelly Brown been on the other side of the coin Gatland flipped to decide his back-row then perhaps there would be another player able to fight Hogg’s corner. That is not a complaint about the lack of Scots, but a reminder that strong-willed Scottish enforcements missing out can change the tour dynamic.
As it stands Richie Gray has a hard enough task proving his fitness and Sean Maitland will be spinning like a wonky office chair after his impossibly quick career turnaround. Will someone who has gone from plane landings to Lions in only six months take the time to slow it down and ask that his young friend be given some leeway?
It is one of those hard situations. Irvine has spoken firmly but sagely so far, and maybe he will act as a godfather of sorts for Hogg. Perhaps Gatland and Howley will handle him with care. Perhaps Gray and Maitland will band together behind Hogg.
Mind you, the least surprising scenario could be that Hogg does as he has already done in his nip of a career and shoots to the fore, taking problems in his rapid stride and forging ahead with attack as his intention. Maybe we can count on that.
Read our exclusive interview with Stuart Hogg in the June edition of Rugby World, in which he reveals what makes him a rugby geek! Don’t forget to buy your copy – it’s on sale from 7 May.Like Rugby World? Subscribe to the magazine for the latest comprehensive content.