Warren Gatland selects his Lions squad at the end of April allowing him the luxury to fully analyse the recent 6 Nations campaign whilst casting an eye over the final games in the domestic leagues and semi-final matches in both the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup.
The fact that playing conditions will improve (surely they will?) should result in some more dynamic, expansive rugby than the suffocating nausea witnessed during the 6 Nations; the exception being the opening weekend of matches and Wales’s magnificent performance against England.
It might be that the championship winning game will swing the balance of selection in favour of a Welsh dominated squad but once Gatland and his coaching team delve into the realms of selection I am sure that many positions will debated in meticulous detail. Blends are important. But my interest at this juncture is to analyse Scotland’s performances in the 6 Nations and seek to identify which players will be part of this conclave?
Scotland’s third place finish can be viewed as very much a work in progress. Scott Johnston may well yet stay on as head coach but the reality is that other coaches are out there and the question has to be asked, has he done enough to bring through the players and develop a style of rugby that is getting the best from his charges?
One comment delivered by the former Wales and Lions player JPR Williams when Wales played at Murrayfield really struck a chord. ‘Scotland have got their respect back following their wins against Italy and Ireland’, explained the legendary full back. ‘Now they have to go out and play an attack minded game using the ability of the back three who are equally as good as the Welsh back combination.’
Whilst the players have come out and endorsed their support for the Australian coach I remain to be convinced. It might be that Johnston is better suited to the support roll and Scottish Rugby had a duty to look at the overall picture in terms of coaching direction, strength, conditioning and performance. There are still questions to be asked.
As I alluded earlier JPR Williams had said our best attacking option was our back 3 and after the confidence boosting wins against Italy and Ireland why did Scotland wait until the 75th minute of the French game, for example to score one of the tries of the championship? It also beggars the question, why was Sean Lamont continually selected in the mid field when a play maker was required to unleash our most dangerous backs?
Upfront the pack were diligent and drilled but our players tended to set up phase possession by going to deck rather than look to break gain lines and develop off-loads that brings font foot rugby to the fore. Our ability to challenge at the breakdown resulted in poor possession stats and that lack of territorial control was most evident in the match against Ireland.
What I am trying to illustrate is that there are ways to change a game and what I witnessed was a type of game that was one dimensional and too predictable although in answer to the lack of territory Duncan Weir came in for the final 2 games and Laidlaw showed in the first half against France how a side can dictate through his probing kicks.
Having brought solidity and a workman like attitude to the pack, Dean Ryan will no longer be part of the coaching set up having advised Johnston that he was only ever going to be involved for the 6 Nations. That void needs to be plugged and whilst Matt Taylor from Glasgow was brought into assist the defensive line why were Scott Murray and Shade Munro (both involved in Scotland’s A win over the Saxons) not brought in to shadow the former Gloucester coach whose knowledge and technical insight could have been tapped?
Back in November I really did feel that Scotland had reached an impasse but what we saw from this team was a commitment and self-belief to remain competitive in all matches. There are still masses of work to be undertaken and player development and excellence is what needs to be delivered. The measure of this ambition will be how Scotland copes in the 4 nations tournament this summer in South Africa when Scotland will play their Rugby World Cup 2015 pool opponents Samoa and South Africa and also face Italy who under Jacques Brunel are showing real signs of progress.
So who from Scotland will go on the Lion’s tour? Stuart Hogg has undoubtedly put himself right in the frame however his security under the high ball must be improved. I felt he was a little naive in his performance against France and his missed tackle on Wesley Fofana should have been nailed. What is in his favour though is that he attacked well with ball in hand and his cutting edge pace and ability to beat a man one on one puts him above Alex Goode of England.
We have not yet seen the best of Sean Maitland and whilst he is being talked up as an outside bet for a wing spot he has good footballing ability. Some of his defence has been superb but overall he is a tidy and reliable player that may well yet attract selection.
The strongest Scottish candidate is also the smallest. Greig Laidlaw has a great rugby brain. I remember being very critical of Andy Robinson for not selecting him for RWC2011 as Greig brings a different dynamic to his play around the field. Ben Youngs and Mike Philips are above him in the Lion’s pecking order but Laidlaw has a crisp pass, reads the game well and his goal kicking is an added plus over Danny Care and Connor Murray.
Up front Ryan Grant may well get a nod. This will be dependent on whether Andrew Sheridan will claim one of 3 loose head spots as Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins have already packed their bags. Grant needs to carry more ball but he is solid in the scrum and a good showing with Glasgow in the run in to the playoffs of the RaboDirectPro12 will be required to keep his profile high.
Many pundits have already pencilled in Richie Grey and whilst he needs a quick recovery from the hamstring injury he picked up in the match against Wales I just question whether he has done enough to be selected? Jim Hamilton had a good championship but compared to the amount of ball that the English locks Parling and Launchberry carried and indeed the Welsh pair of Wyn-Jones and Evans there is plenty of competition there. However one nasty, gnarly Gloucester man just may well be the surprise of the bunch. Remember what I said about blends?
Finally I take my hat off to Kelly Brown. He has put himself in the selection frame but from what is the most competitive position Warburton, Tipuric, O’Brien and Croft are all in the mix. What a wonderful committed Captain Scotland have. I would prefer him to have played as a blindside in this championship but with injuries to Barclay, Rennie and Fusaro, Scotland may well breathe a sigh of relief to have him in South Africa rather than in Australia.
Only 3 or 4 Scots in a Lions touring party is not the best return that we have ever had but if Scotland are to aspire to continue to challenge for further representation then it is up to the players to continually improve their skills set and ambition to win games. Who coaches them to that summit has still to be determined.