As they prepared to do battle against South Africa in 1997, Jim Telfer told his pack of forwards that very few players get to “reach for the top of Everest” by winning a Lions Test series. The number of Scots to sample that rarefied atmosphere in the two decades since is significantly fewer still.
On the most iconic tour of the professional era, the Lions tamed an almighty Springboks outfit, with Scottish stalwarts Tom Smith, Rob Wainwright, Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait all starting Tests as the world champions were handed a 2-1 series defeat.
Four years later Smith started all three Tests in Australia – as he had in South Africa – but was the only Scot to make the starting XV during the series. If that was bad, worse was to follow.
On the tours to New Zealand in 2005, South Africa in 2009 and Australia in 2013, not a single Scot started a Test. Indeed, only three players appeared off the bench in those series.
Gordon Bulloch got 10 minutes in the final Test against New Zealand with the series already lost. Ross Ford fared a little better four years later, seeing 45 minutes of action against South Africa, but again the series was already gone when his moment arrived in the third Test.
Richie Gray was the only Scot to get a taste of the Test arena on the last tour, his 12-minute cameo against Australia coming when the series decider was firmly in the Lions’ grip as they led 34-16, going on to win 41-16.
A bleak picture for Scottish rugby, and yet the current tour has now provided the most unwanted piece of history. Warren Gatland’s decision not to name any Scottish players in his match-day squad to face the All Blacks in Saturday’s decisive Test in Auckland represents the first time the Lions have failed to call upon any Scot in a Test series since the Anglo-Welsh tour of 1908.
So, given their dwindling representation on recent tours, how important is the Lions to those in Scottish rugby?
The disconnect between Scotland and the Lions
Bulloch says “for northern hemisphere rugby you want them to succeed”, but admits despite being part of rugby’s most famous select side as a player, his passion for the Lions has waned somewhat in the 12 years since he donned the fabled red jersey.
“Yes, you could say that,” said the former hooker, who also came off the bench in the Lions first-Test victory over Australia in 2001.
“I’ve not watched any of the last two tours. I think many people find it difficult to make that transition from a player back to being a fan. Without any Scots players there it’s difficult to latch on to anything and cheer for them.
“I’m still backing them but I just don’t have that drive to switch into every minute that they’re playing. If we did have some representation and some leaders there that were involved in the battle that’s going to happen at Eden Park on Saturday then you would be a lot more emotionally attached to it. I think from that point of view it is difficult to get behind them and cheer them on.
There’s been a little bit of a disconnect in the last few tours.”Only two Scots made the initial tour party to New Zealand – Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg. Greig Laidlaw was then added before the squad departed after Ben Youngs withdrew. Finn Russell and Allan Dell were called upon after the first Test to provide cover, but found their Lions contributions limited to fleeting midweek appearances from the bench, due to injury or sin-binnings.
BBC Scotland’s John Beattie is a veteran of two Lions tours, but he can understand why many Scots feel little connection to a side that, when it comes to the crunch-time of the Test series, features none of their countrymen.
“I’ve got nothing against people who, purely in a fit of pique, think, ‘If they win I don’t care, we’re not involved’,” said Beattie, who was one of eight Scots selected for the tour of New Zealand in 1983.
“A lot of the people who are criticising the Lions who are Scottish are promoting a political agenda. Some of them are, but there will be a lot as well who will be doing it out of anger, frustration. I sometimes fall into that second group where you are angry and frustrated at not having more Scots on the tour.
“Even leading up to the first Test, and I’m a Lion, I was thinking, ‘Why should I support this?’ I felt we’d been snubbed. I genuinely felt we should have had more players in it.”
‘The Lions doesn’t do it for me’
Bill Johnstone witnessed just about everything international rugby has to offer in 32 years as BBC Radio Scotland’s commentator, and he too says the lack of Scots on show at the sharp end of Lions tours means the concept is not as treasured by him as it is by many British and Irish rugby fans.
“The Lions, for me, has never held the same sort of magic that supporting Scotland or indeed Scottish rugby in any form has held,” explained Johnstone, who hung up his microphone at the end of last season.
“I don’t know whether it’s to do with the smaller representation of Scottish players historically in Lions teams over the years or not. There have never been as many Scots playing in the Lions sides as there has been English, Welsh or Irish.
“It’s one of the reasons for me that the Lions has always been quite a bit below the interest that the Scottish rugby team has held for me. It doesn’t do it for me in the same way that watching Scotland does.
“I sit and watch it almost from a neutral point of view, to be perfectly honest. Who will I be supporting? Hand on heart it will be the Lions.”
Rory Baldwin, editor of the Scottish Rugby Blog website, says Johnstone is not alone in feeling no more than a neutral watching Lions Test matches, as opposed to being invested as a supporter.
“A lot of fans in Scotland, if not necessarily supporting the All Blacks, are edging towards neutrality,” he explained.
“We did a poll on the website asking, ‘Who are you going to be supporting?’ and it was about 46% supporting the Lions, 26% supporting the All Blacks and the other 28% weren’t fussed. That was quite interesting.
“The problem for myself and a lot of fans in Scotland is it’s almost like a party that we’re not invited to. There has been little Scottish participation for more than a decade. There’s a generation of Scotland fans growing up with no real buy-in to the concept.”
‘We have to blame ourselves to some extent’
Beattie could never imagine wishing for anything other than a Lions victory, but warns that losing the support of Scottish rugby could be harmful to the future of the Lions in years to come.
“I think that is a danger, if you continually don’t select Scottish players, Scottish people will become disenchanted with the Lions,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.
“I can understand people who wonder, ‘What’s the point?’ There will be fans who will be totally disengaged from the whole exercise. But I do think we have to blame ourselves to some extent.
We’ve been bottom or second bottom of the Six Nations for so many years out the last 10. It’s partly our fault, but the beauty of the great Lions tours – ’71, ’74, ’97 – is the people that you expected to start in the Lions Test teams didn’t. It ended up being this wonderful blend of four different rugby countries, and it worked.”I hand on heart want them to win the third Test, but it’s really dangerous to ignore the Scots and the way some fans are feeling and continually pick so many players to the exclusion of Scottish players.”