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Gatland's anti-Scottish Lions agenda

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Is there an anti-Scottish agenda festering among Lions hierarchy, or is Gatland within his rights to ignore them?

Warren Gatland’s towering feats as a rugby coach are grudgingly acknowledged in Scotland, but he will never be loved here, will never be toasted as a colossus of the sport here, and the mention of his name in Scottish rugby circles will always elicit growls of bitterness and contempt.

Gatland is a rugby titan, no doubt. Whatever he does with Wales at the World Cup later this year and with the Lions in South Africa in 2021, his place in the game’s pantheon of giants has long been secured. 

Three English Premiership titles, a Challenge Cup, a Heineken Cup, an NPC crown, three Grand Slams and four Six Nations triumphs, a victorious Lions tour of Australia and a drawn series in New Zealand against the back-to-back world champions. It’s a glorious CV.

The hostility in Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond isn’t for his immense success against Scotland – 11 wins in 11 Tests as Wales head coach, 318 points scored and 148 conceded – or for the regular pastings his teams have inflicted on the Scots.

The aversion to Gatland is, of course, because of the way he went about leading the Lions of 2013 and 2017. Specifically, it’s about how desperately few Scots he took and what he did with the ones he did select. Gatland picked three Scotsmen for the journey to Australia and three more for the tour of his native New Zealand four years later.

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In the second Test of 2013 – the Test the Lions lost – he left Ryan Grant, a late injury call-up, riding the pine with Mako Vunipola wheezing and the scrum labouring. In an age where almost every substitute in almost every game gets on, that threatened to spark an international incident.

“I kind of avoided (forwards coach) Graham Rowntree for a few days after that because I was bitterly disappointed and if we spoke sooner, I would probably say something stupid,” said Grant four years later. “So I let it cool down for a couple of days, went and spoke to him. He just kind of said to me that he hadn’t seen enough of me.

“He wasn’t sure he could trust me in a Test match like that, and it was the one they lost. I just had to say, ‘Listen, I totally disagree with you, and if you’d watched any of the Six Nations games you’d know I could handle myself, so we’ll agree to disagree’ – I don’t think we’ve said a single word to each other since.”

Ryan Grant walks onto the pitch during the British and Irish Lions training session at Scotch College in Melbourne in 2013 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

That was the beginning of Gatland and the Scots. In 2013, Grant and co were nowhere as an international force, right at the start of their current cycle. Stuart Hogg had just thundered on to the scene. Matt Scott, Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar, Pete Horne, Tommy Seymour and more were all winning their first handful of caps.

In 2017, things were different. They were damn impressive in putting Ireland and Wales, coached by Rob Howley with Gatland on Lions duty, to the sword. They copped an almighty, humiliating shellacking at Twickenham and that cost them but there were many more players with compelling cases to make the tour party.

Hogg, Seymour and Greig Laidlaw got there – Laidlaw only after Ben Youngs had withdrawn before the tour. Hogg was invalided out. Seymour and Laidlaw got nowhere near the Test team. And for the first time since 1908, no Scottish forward made the initial trip. “I don’t think having just two on the tour is justified,” said Jim Telfer, the leviathan of Scottish and Lions rugby, when news of Gatland’s squad broke.

The 2017 Lions touring squad is unveiled at the Hilton London Syon Park (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The indomitable former prop of the 1970s, Ian McLauchlan, was a member of the Scottish Rugby Board at the time, but “Mighty Mouse” has never been known to be constrained by the shackles of diplomacy. “Gatland doesn’t exactly have a good track record in liking people from Scotland,” he said. “He doesn’t come here, does he? And he doesn’t know the names of Scottish players. 

“When he was asked on television whether there were any Scots in the running, he said: ‘There is Hogg and the new boy at centre – and one of the wingers looked quite good’. He couldn’t name them. He only knows Stuart Hogg.”

But what was it Telfer said about the honest player? In that greatest of pre-match addresses, what did the white-maned colossus tell the Lions forwards of 1997 about carping and moaning and looking themselves in the mirror and resolving to get better?

Scotland’s Tom Smith get ready with Keith Wood for a scrum during the successful 1997 Lions tour of South Africa (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Scotland’s hideous lack of representation goes way beyond Gatland. In 2001, they had three players in Graham Henry’s original party. One of them, Tom Smith, remains the most recent Scottish Test starter. Four years later, Clive Woodward took three on the wretched journey to New Zealand. Ian McGeechan selected four, one of them a pre-tour injury replacement, in 2009. And Gatland took three apiece in 2013 and 2017.

In the five tours since 1997, only Smith, Gordon Bulloch, Ross Ford and Richie Gray have seen any Test game time. Of the 225 starting jerseys up for grabs in that time, three have been filled by a Scot – each belonging to Smith 18 years ago. It is a pitiful return.

Is there some anti-Scottish agenda festering among the Lions hierarchy? Are Henry, Woodward, Gatland – and even McGeechan – biased or wrong or ignorant of a pot of riches north of the English border? Or could it just be that Scotland’s players haven’t been good enough?

If you cast an eye over the names that did make Gatland’s squad two years ago, you get an idea of the ferocity of the competition. From Alun Wyn Jones, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje, who should have been discarded to accommodate Jonny Gray?

Should Dan Biggar, Jonny Sexton or Owen Farrell have been left at home to select Finn Russell, who was then a far less accomplished game manager than he is now?

Hamish Watson decimated the Welsh back row only months earlier, but choose the Scot and Gatland would have had to ditch Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric or his captain, Sam Warburton.

Sam Johnson is congratulated by Adam Hastings and Byron McGuigan after scoring Scotland’s fifth try versus England in March (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The overarching narrative is that Scotland are improving, but if you took that squad position by position, as Lions selectors do, the Scottish players didn’t measure up to their rivals from England, Ireland and Wales. 

They had won nothing. Their away record in the Six Nations was – and, two years on, remains – an embarrassment. No win in Paris for 20 years, no win at Twickenham for over 30, and only one apiece in Cardiff and Dublin this millennium.

Scotland’s players had no advocate on the coaching panel – Gatland had approached Gregor Townsend and Jason O’Halloran, but the former was taking the reins of the national team and the latter had to look after Glasgow’s pre-season before Dave Rennie arrived. 

So why gamble on a Gray or a Russell or a Watson, impressive performers in a coming team, when you have a familiar, proven, Grand Slam-winning alternative? 

It is brutal fare for Scotland’s supporters, a grand rugby nation growing increasingly detached from one of the sport’s most wonderful and prestigious traditions. A whole generation of Scots have grown up without seeing their team represented on the field in any meaningful way. But Scottish rugby’s hopeless recent past is hardly the fault of Gatland or any other coach.

These are the home truths, but the positive is that between now and 2021, Scotland’s players have ample opportunity to prove themselves in the biggest arenas, to show Gatland he can hang his hat on them just as readily as he might their rivals.

Townsend and Scotland will negotiate a World Cup, two Six Nations featuring the full gamut of away trips, autumn internationals and probably a summer tour in a year’s time. That is a lot of seriously competitive rugby.

Before then, the flakiness displayed in all its unfathomable horror at Twickenham – the abomination of the first half and the brilliance of the second – has to go. 

The perception of Scotland and Scottish rugby is changing. Townsend and his predecessor, Vern Cotter, have done more to ensure that than anyone. 

There have been scalps along the way and the trajectory is discernibly upwards. But sustained, ruthless consistency when it really matters – that is Scotland’s great challenge. That is what Gatland will demand. 

More fluctuations and more erratic tendencies will only result in Smith’s sorry Test record stretching another four years.

WATCH: Episode three of Rugby Explorer, the RugbyPass series hosted by Jim Hamilton, takes a trek through South Africa

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Is there an anti-Scottish agenda festering among Lions hierarchy, or is Gatland within his rights to ignore them?