TWENTY barren years will come to an end on Saturday when Stuart Hogg, Ali Price and Duhan van der Merwe become the first Scots in five tours to start a Test for the British & Irish Lions. 

Tom Smith was the last, against Australia in 2001, while you have to go back four more years for the last time three began - Smith, Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait having played in and won the first two Tests against South Africa. Ross Ford did play in the third Test against the same side in 2009, but only off the bench.

The country’s minimal representation in both Lions Test teams and squads in recent years has led to suggestions that Warren Gatland has for some reason undervalued our players. But yesterday, after announcing a 23 to play the Springboks that also includes Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson on the bench, the tourists’ head coach insisted that the reason there are now more Scots involved was simple - the team is playing to a higher standard.

“I thought the last Six Nations was the closest I’ve seen in a long time, and even though Scotland did finish fourth in the end, another victory and it could have been different,” Gatland said of the team whose head coach, Townsend, is one of his assistants in South Africa. “I think they’re on an upward journey and hopefully that continues for them. That’s the challenge for Scotland going forward, but they’ve definitely made improvements over the last four or five years, there’s no doubt about that.”

For Hogg, this selection is a case of third time lucky after he was unable to break into the Test side as a 20-year-old in 2013 then four years later had his tour ended early by injury. “He’s had that experience of two previous tours,” Gatland continued. “He’s been very unlucky in that this is his third tour and his first start. It was a toss of the coin between him and Liam Williams and we could have gone either way there, but we just felt that for this game [we should give] Stuart that opportunity. He’ll hopefully take his chance.”

Price has certainly taken his chance so far, emerging as the in-form scrum-half despite initially being seen as back-up to Conor Murray and Gareth Davies. “We’ve been really impressed with him,” Gatland said of the Glasgow back. “I thought his running game against the Stormers was good. There was some nice variation and he was getting the ball away quickly.”

Van der Merwe, meanwhile, will be under a lot of pressure against the country where he was born, according to Gatland. The winger will be up against the most dangerous attacker in the world, Cheslin Kolbe, while the coach also expects him to be subjected to some sledging.

“It’s going to be a real challenge. Cheslin had one opportunity in that ‘A’ game and made the most of it. Hopefully we won’t be giving him as much time and space on the ball on Saturday.

“It’s a challenge for [Van der Merwe]. I spoke to him yesterday and said to him ‘You know what’s coming on the weekend’, and he was fully aware. Because I presume every time he touches the ball they’ll be trying to hit him with everything they’ve got. There will probably be some verbals at him as well. 

“He’s well aware of what’s at stake, but he’s been incredibly relaxed. The way he’s been running with the ball and beating defenders, and also scoring tries - top try-scorer in the Six Nations.”

The preference of Van der Merwe over the tour’s leading try-scorer Josh Adams was one of the toughest, according to Gatland, who sees such close calls as proof of the serious depth of talent in his squad. That depth, he believes, could prove to be the Lions’ crucial advantage over the Springboks as the series goes on and injuries enforce changes.

Looking at Saturday as a one-off match, the key quality required will surely be resilience, something exemplified by Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones, back in the squad after dislocating his shoulder against Japan at Murrayfield. 

“To be involved now is everything I’ve worked for really, over not just the last two years but the last four years, probably,” the Welsh lock said. “It’s very, very special. It’s hopefully going to be a very enjoyable week.”

There is only one difference between the actual 23 led by Jones and the one which was apparently leaked to The Times newspaper on Tuesday - on the bench, where back-three player Williams is part of a 5-3 split, rather than lock Iain Henderson being in a 6-2. Gatland said he was unsure whether the squad had been leaked accidentally or whether “someone has betrayed someone’s trust”, and said that next week he will announce the team publicly immediately after telling the players.