LONDON (Reuters) - Scotland may not have won a Six Nations title this century and been rumbled out of the last World Cup at the first hurdle, but the selection of eight of their players for the British and Irish Lions will come as a major boost to rugby in the country.
The selection of Zander Fagerson, Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Rory Sutherland, Duhan van der Merwe and Hamish Watson is the largest representation of Scots in a Lions tour party since 1989 and a four-fold increase on the two initially selected for the tour to New Zealand four years ago.
It comes on the heels of an impressive, if somewhat unlucky, Six Nations campaign, where Scotland proved much more competitive than they have for years.
“It affirms we are producing players to compete alongside some of the best in the world,” Scottish Rugby’s chief executive officer Mark Dodson said in a statement on Thursday.
Scotland, who have the smallest rugby structures of the home countries, promised much at the start of this year’s Six Nations tournament when they beat England away for the first time in 38 years, but narrow home losses to Wales and Ireland then ruled them out of contention for a first title since 1999.
But they did bounce back to beat France in Paris in the delayed finish to the competition in March, in a performance Lions coach Warren Gatland said had impressed him.
“That brought a lot of players into contention,” he said on Thursday.
Gatland also selected Scotland coach Gregor Townsend to serve as one of his assistants on the tour to South Africa but insisted there was no undue influence in the tour party selection.
“It wasn’t about pushing the Scottish players, it was about us picking who we thought could do the biggest job for us,” added Gatland.
“I’ve got to make sure I get the balance right between picking who we think are the best players in the squad, not about where they come from.”
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris)