LAST Thursday’s Lions squad announcement was always going to spark some fierce debate and a healthy dose of grumbling.

Bun fights over selection have become part of the tradition for the world’s most famous touring team. However, the reaction from across the Irish Sea at having only eight players make the cut – with Johnny Sexton, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose amongst the omitted – was startlingly fierce.

The fact that Scotland also have eight players on the trip was a particular source of angst, with former Irish forward turned outspoken pundit Neil Francis amusingly unhinged in his outrage.

He claimed that he had detected a ‘sheepishness’ about Gregor Townsend during an interview ahead of the grand reveal and asserted that this was clearly because the Scotsman had managed to bully or manipulate Lions head coach Warren Gatland into picking an unjustifiable number of his countryman for the trip.

Poor Warren! Who knew he was so malleable!?

“None of the Scottish players who have been included are starting Test standard,” asserted Francis.

“Gatland will not risk the whole Test series on the vagaries of some lunar alignment in Finn Russell’s head or how he feels when he gets out of bed on the day of the Test match,” he snorted.

“Bringing Duhan van der Merwe makes me sick to my stomach,” he gasped.

“Ali Price is the worst original selection pick at scrum-half for decades,” he howled.

Those are just the most colourful highlights. Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson were also targeted in an astonishing tirade. There wasn’t much in the way of analysis, but you can’t doubt the man’s passion!

Former Ireland and Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll was slightly more circumspect but his sniffy take on Russell being selected ahead of Sexton was even more disappointing because it came from someone who we expect a bit more self-awareness and even-handedness from.

“When you’ve got the Scottish head coach in Gregor Townsend in one corner, when you’re talking 50-50 decisions, of course he’s going to be arguing for all of Finn Russell’s positive attributes,” he said. “Then you wait and look across and no-one is saying that about Johnny Sexton.”

This conveniently overlooks the fact that Gatland knows all about Sexton’s attributes, having started him at No.10 in five out of the last six Lions Tests over two tours, and naming him on the bench in the other. It also ignores the fact that Russell and Townsend have a chequered history, and while their relationship has been resurrected following that spectacular spat during the 2020 Six Nations, the idea of the coach being tunnel visioned by the player’s positive attributes to the exclusion of all else is patently ludicrous.

In fairness, not all the wrath has been directed towards Scotland for having the temerity to match Ireland’s representation. England’s haul of 11 players, despite losing to all three of the other contributing countries during the recent Six Nations, has also gone down badly.

While this disproportionate reaction from our Celtic cousins is a big relief because it proves that Scottish rugby does not have a monopoly on unjustified indignation, it does also highlight how important having a healthy representation on a Lions tour can be for a country, and we’re not just talking about bragging rights here.

The omission of players like 24-year-old Ryan and 26-year-old Ringrose is raw in Ireland because they know from previous experience that a tour such as this offers benefit which reaches beyond the individual players involved.

The self-belief, toughness and basic understanding of what is required to operate at the very highest level rubs off and it becomes a virtuous circle. In reality, eight players on the tour is not a disaster for Ireland, but they would much rather have 10 or 12 because the more players they have who have lived through the experience the wider the benefit reaches, and they would much rather their opponents didn’t have the same number getting that exposure.

Over five successive tours during the last 20 years, Scotland have not had more than three players in an initial squad, which has undoubtedly left the national team and the two pro sides at a critical disadvantage when competing in high-class, big-pressure matches.

Now, having eight players – plus two coaches – coming out of an environment where they have spent two months living, training, playing and hopefully winning alongside the best that Britain and Ireland have to offer, whilst taking on arguably the sport’s ultimate challenge, can have huge legacy benefits to the pro game in this country.

Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe, Ali Price, Zander Fagerson, Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson owe it to themselves – and they owe it to Scotland – to make the absolute most of this opportunity.

Scotland’s biggest ever Lions’ representation was nine, when Finlay Calder led the touring side to a 2-1 series victory over Australia, and they won the Grand Slam the following year. The only previous time Scotland got eight onto a tour was in 1983, just before the 1984 Grand Slam success. Can history repeat itself in 2022?