By Alan Dymock
IF SELECTION does not fall favourably for the few, the 2013 tour could be the first time since 1930 that a Scot has not received a Test cap for the British and Irish Lions.
Conspiracy theories aside, it is worth noting that Scottish loose-head prop Ryan Grant sat on the bench for 80 minutes during the second Test, waiting for a chance to replace Mako Vunipola. The chance never came.
It is very likely that nationality has nothing to do with this choice. However, what can be stated is that Warren Gatland and Graham Rowntree did not trust Grant when it mattered. Effectively they said on Saturday that a fatigued Vunipola is more valuable than a fresh Grant when a Test result is in the balance.
If you look for context, Grant is a prop who had started every game in the Six Nations for Scotland, defeating Ireland and Italy. He had propped for Scotland when they beat Australia last summer. He was picked in the RaboDirect Pro12 team of the year and at the end of last season troubled Test shoe-in Adam Jones when Glasgow Warriors played the Ospreys.
Of course, your last year can mean nothing when under pressure, and certainly when troubles pile-up it is easy to resort to what you know. However, keeping Vunipola on the field for 80 minutes was a gigantic risk by the Lions management.
In the interest of balance it must be pointed out that tactically, had the coaches indeed mistrusted Grant, that swapping Vunipola for Dan Cole – a player with more than enough loose-head experience – would have been a sufficient move to get the referee onside.
Neither substitute replaced Vunipola, though. Yes the scrums did improve while the Saracen was still on the park, however this did not remove the risk. Had a scrum gone down in Lions territory in the second half the referee could have just as easily pinged Vunipola for going down, reverting to the decisions he made in the first quarter when Vunipola was twice held responsible for the wonky set-piece. There is just no way of predicting many referees, particularly one like Craig Joubert with a track record of muddling his scrums. The gamble paid off in some tiny way, but it was still a gamble and one that was not wholly necessary.
There is still time for Gatland to shake up his bench and include a second row, which in theory gives Richie Gray a 50/50 chance of making the team, running in competition with Ian Evans. However, should he not, it is almost guaranteed that Alex Corbisiero will return to the Lions starting team, a reward for his fine showing in the first Test. If Vunipola drops out of the squad completely after being backed for a whole game, the selectors will lose face. Is that a risk worth taking so close to the vital decider?
Tribalism will be the accusation levelled at the many Scots perplexed by Grant’s stint on the bench. For some this will be true. Yet the inconsistency in tactics is more worrying, for fans from all four Unions. All will be forgiven should the Lions win the series, but a few individuals will still feel aggrieved having missed out because one or two men do not know them as well as others. Grant is certainly feeling jaded after the fact, replying to a tweet from Scotland teammate Ruaridh Jackson about not being able to wait for a chance to get away from it all with, “You and me both brother!“
As for Scotland, any perceived slight would have to be acted upon positively. If a lazy stereotype of Scottish inferiority does indeed exist it must be eradicated. That comes through action, and if players do not get the opportunity to do that on the Lions stage, the clubs and national side must step up.
After the 1983 Lions tour to New Zealand, several Scots returned feeling spurned and unfairly treated. They went on to win the following Five Nations Championship. Now, to expect Scotland to win the next Six Nations is unrealistic. Nonetheless, they will have to back up the defeat of Ireland and finally overcome Wales and England to gain any respect.
Mind you, before all that, they have the chance to protect their Hopetoun Cup against Australia in the upcoming Autumn Internationals. If they beat them again, that would certainly send out a message to those not able to see Scotland’s finest during the summer Tests. That would be the positive reaction.
In international rugby there is no time to feel sorry for yourselves.