Twelve months from now, Warren Gatland will take charge of the first matches of his third tour as coach of the British and Irish Lions. Back home, watching the action in South Africa, Scots will either be imbued with a rekindled love for this prestigious old rugby beast, or cursing their meagre contingent on yet another southern-hemisphere voyage.

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There’s a popular theory among Scottish rugby people that Gatland has it in for their players, that he harbours a great bias against them and an ignorance of their qualities.

He took three to Australia in 2013 and three more to New Zealand four years later, calling up another two as part of his controversial “geography six”. No Scottish forward made the initial party and no Scot was selected in a Test squad for the first time in over a century.

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Warren Gatland talks to RugbyPass

Is this evidence of a Gatland agenda against Scotland, a deep-rooted scorn for the talents of Gregor Townsend’s players? Or could it be, simply, that the Scots haven’t done enough to move one of the finest minds the game has ever known to picking them?

This non-selection lament isn’t just a Gatland thing. Come next year’s tour to South Africa, it will be fully two decades since a Scot – the brilliant Tom Smith – last started a Lions Test. Since 1997, there have been 225 starting Test jerseys available and only three have been filled by a Scottish player – Smith in each game of the 2001 series. In that time, not Sir Graham Henry, Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Ian McGeechan nor Gatland himself has seen fit to take any more than four Scots on tour.

There is a burgeoning hostility towards Gatland in Scotland. A generation of supporters has never seen their team represented beyond provincial games and the odd Test cameo. The apathy during the last tour was palpable.

The landscape is changing a little, thanks to Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend and, for the first time in an age, a large cohort of Scottish players who can make a persuasive case to go to South Africa.
At prop, Rory Sutherland must build on a fantastic Six Nations campaign where he scrummaged like a demon and charged around the paddock with the vigour of a scalded warthog. Rugby folk in Scotland have long known of Sutherland’s excellence but because of a dreadful injury, only now are those beyond his homeland beginning to take notice. The loose-head is leaner, hungrier and more focused as a result of the turmoil.

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Zander Fagerson too is adding gears to his game season on season, bringing destructive ball-carrying to his set-piece heft on the other side of the scrum. The word is that he is being eyed up by clubs in England and France and Glasgow will find it almost impossible to keep him when his next contract expires.

Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown could force their way into the reckoning at hooker. Jonny Gray will find it exceedingly difficult to penetrate a phenomenal group of locks, but with a big start to life at Exeter Chiefs and some even bigger international displays, it is not beyond him.

Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie have the snarl and visceral aggression Gatland is going to need against the Springboks. Both are relentless competitors over ball, and Watson can deliver the stunning on the rampage. The Edinburgh open-side is in his prime and offers what few others can. He is a strong contender.

One of Ali Price and George Horne is a decent bet at scrum-half. Finn Russell is a far safer shout, having taken himself to staggering new heights in France and eradicated much of the flakiness from his play. Russell has cemented himself as one of the premier fly-halves in world rugby. After his dispute with Townsend, he needs and wants to get back in the Scotland fold to burnish his credentials for next year. It will not be enough merely to flourish behind a tremendous Racing pack.

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Scotland have a glut of quality centres, but it is hard to see any of them making it barring a searing run of form or a spree of injuries.

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Warren Gatland, Head coach of Wales looks on prior to the Natwest Six Nations round One match between Wales and Scotland at Principality Stadium in 2018. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Stuart Hogg is a Gatland favourite and maturing into a sound leader, and will go at full-back. He has the best prospect of ending Scotland’s 20-year wait for a starting Test Lion. Darcy Graham, once fit again, will be in the conversation if he replicates his dazzling performances of last season on the wing. Graham is another who punches well above his modest weight, relishes the skirmishes of battle and is a quite remarkable finisher.

All these names, all this fresh hope, yet the brutal truth lingers. Scotland are going to have to do an awful lot more at international level to compel Gatland to choose their players from a pool of champions and winners with credit in the bank.

If we take Italy out of the equation, Scotland’s last away win in the Six Nations came over ten years ago now, at Croke Park in 2010. They haven’t won in Cardiff since 2002, in Paris since 1999 and at Twickenham for 37 years.

In the period since Scotland’s sacking of “Croker”, Ireland have won a Grand Slam and two more titles, beaten the All Blacks twice and reached the summit of the World Rugby rankings, while Leinster, their strongest province, have taken four Pro14s and three Champions Cups. Wales have two Slams and another title, all under Gatland, and also occupied the number-one spot. England made a World Cup final eight months ago, have won three titles, including a Slam, and in Saracens, boast a three-time European champion.

Scotland have big victories over Australia and Argentina to savour, home wins against Ireland, Wales, France and England, and that bonkers draw at Twickenham last year. But they also have two group-stage exits from the World Cup, hammerings in Dublin, in Cardiff, in London and in Japan, and only one piece of silverware in Glasgow’s Pro12 triumph of 2015.

Jason O’Halloran, the recently departed Warriors attack coach, spoke last month of how badly Scotland needed to win on the road and how more investment must be made in addressing their mindset.

“Tell me that’s a coincidence that it was at Croke Park, where Scotland never normally play, and that’s the only away win they’ve had against anybody apart from Italy in 10 years,” the New Zealander said.
“That was possibly because it didn’t hold any of the demons of turning up at Lansdowne Road [now the Aviva Stadium] where they normally lose.

“You could state that in the early 2000s Scotland weren’t up to it, but you can’t tell me that since 2010 we’re demonstrably worse technically and tactically than these guys, because it’s not the case.
“You just can’t go away hoping you’re going to win and accepting poor performances. The pitch is 100m by 70m, it doesn’t matter where on the frigging planet it is, you should go out there and play to a certain standard.

“Richie McCaw doesn’t give a shit who he’s playing against. He doesn’t care if it’s Guatemala B or South Africa, he’s going to go out there and play Richie McCaw-level footie, and that’s what you’ve got to do as a rugby player.”

O’Halloran turned down a role in Gatland’s coaching staff three years ago to put preparations in place for Dave Rennie’s arrival at Glasgow. Townsend too rebuffed an approach because the tour clashed with his first matches in charge of Scotland. The absence of an advocate on the selection panel undoubtedly hurt Scottish players, but nothing was stopping Gatland from picking up the phone to those who knew the men best.

It is a crying shame for Scotland that coronavirus scuppered a monumental summer tour, where they would have played South Africa and New Zealand in their own back yards and had the opportunity to emphatically catch Gatland’s eye.

As it is, all the old doubts remain about Scotland’s ability to win away from Murrayfield, and to seize games by the scruff when the chips are down. They will have opportunities to rectify that in the coming months, and it is imperative that they take them.

On 24th July next year, the Lions play their first Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg. How many Scots will be in the team? And if the answer is none, will Gatland again be branded as an anti-Scottish pariah, or will fans awaken to their team’s shortcomings? There are no agendas here, only cold, hard facts – promise abounds, but in the race to South Africa, Scotland are still the underdogs.

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