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Time for Scotland to start producing Lions

At Fifteen Rugby we have been very vocal in our belief that the British and Irish Lions are ‘one team’.

It may be a team made up of four nations but as soon as the squad is announced they are no longer Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotsmen or Welshmen, just Lions.

However there is one nation that in recent times has been lagging behind in terms of Lions participation – Scotland.

Just three Scots were selected in the original touring party, rising to four when Ryan Grant was called up to replace Gethin Jenkins. Only one of those four, Richie Gray, got any playing time in the series.

It makes for depressing reading for Scottish supporters, made even more depressing by the fact that it is difficult to argue that the Scottish representation in the Lions tour was anything other than 100% justified. Scottish rugby is simply just not at the same level as the other three Home Unions.

Third place in this years’ Six Nations was a superb achievement but it perhaps masked some of the faults in the side. Despite finishing third they still lost more than they won, while victory against Ireland was more akin to daylight robbery than anything else.

This is not said to be critical or harsh but because if Scotland is to gain more Lions representation in 2017 then efforts must be made to do so and that begins with being brutally honest about performance.

Too much of the Scottish game still relies on being tough to beat, with the hope that if they can keep the scores close then they can nick it. It is a strategy that while successful at times (see victories against South Africa, Australia, and Ireland), prevents their players from being able to fully showcase their talent.

It is not just on the field though that their players are being prevented from showing the best of themselves. The decision to reduce the number of professional teams in Scotland to just two still defies belief even after all these years.

There are all sorts of (debatable) financial reasons for reducing the number to two but the simple fact is that from a playing perspective it is daft. One of the key aspects in player development is and always has been to actually play the game – hardly rocket science.

By denying so many players each week the opportunity to play against other professional outfits they are denying players the chance to be exposed to that higher level and to develop within it. Instead fringe players are sent out to play for the likes of Edinburgh Academicals, where as the only professionals they will be the best there. Rarely does a player improve by being better than everyone else around him.

A third professional outfit would allow 23 extra Scottish players each week to be exposed to top-level rugby.

There are arguments that it is not possible to have a pro team in the borders, to be fair they have already tried and failed, because the rivalry between clubs is too strong. However New Zealand have managed it, the likes of the Crusaders draw their talent from the traditional clubs in the Christchurch area where there are strong rivalries yet they seem to have managed to create and sustain a fan base.

There are promising signs for Scotland though; all three of their Lions in the original party, Gray, Hogg and Maitland, are all young enough do tour at least once more, and have made excellent contributions to the tour it should be noted, while as a prop so too could Ryan Grant. All three were selected for their exciting style of play, something that they ought now to have even more confidence to display following their Lions exploits.

If their Lions experience and willingness to play with the ball can rub off on their teammates then Scottish rugby will be in a much better place. There is also the return to form of Johnnie Beattie and the impact of Tim Visser and Matt Scott to enjoy. Scott in particular looks like a sure bet for Lions representation in 2017. So too John Barclay if he can begin to fulfil the promise of his early rugby years.

Not since 2001 and Tom Smith have Scotland had a Lions Test starter though and that is a very sobering fact for Scottish rugby.

Scotland has never been a rugby nation of vast resources, both financial and in terms of playing numbers, but it has always been a proud rugby nation and one that has contributed significantly to the British and Irish Lions but it is in danger of failing on both those counts and that would be a great loss to rugby and to Lions rugby in particular.

First though, Scotland must start winning consistently. Funnily enough the teams that win over a sustained period of time tend to be the teams that supply the most players to the Lions, right down to club level. Both Leinster and Leicester had twice the amount of players than the whole of Scotland in the original squad, there is no coincidence there.

Things have been on the up since the arrival of Scott Johnson though, defeat to Samoa aside, and as a cheerleader of attacking rugby he could yet spark this side to life. Let us hope that the SRU offer him the support, and indeed the structure, that he needs to succeed.

Dare we dream of a Scottish Test starter in 2017? Why not, it must be about time.

By Angus Savage

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