GREGOR TOWNSEND admits that he was concerned that he may have blown his chances of being involved in future Lions tours by turning down the assistant coach role for the 2017 trip to New Zealand – so was hugely relieved when Warren Gatland asked him to oversee the attack on this summer’s expedition to South Africa.  

“That was not an easy decision but at the time I felt it was the right decision to stay with Scotland,” he said. “It was going to be my first coaching opportunity with the national team and we had a tough tour to Australia and Fiji, but it did cross my mind that if you turn down the Lions you might not get asked again so I was delighted that Warren didn’t cross me off his list.  

“I had initial chats with Warren back in November. I was delighted and honoured with being asked. During the Six Nations my focus has been with Scotland and there has been a lot of speculation over the tour going ahead, not going ahead, going ahead in different countries. So up until the last two weeks nothing had been confirmed and since then it has just been discussing the role and what it means now that the tour is going ahead in South Africa.”  

While Townsend’s involvement on this tour has long been anticipated, the appointment of another member of the current Scotland coaching team in Steve Tandy has come much more out of the blue. The 41-year-old Welshman’s name only started being connected with the defence coach role over the weekend after it emerged that Andy Farrell had made himself unavailable.  

Tandy has overseen an impressive tightening up in Scotland defence since the team’s World Cup flop in Japan during the Autumn of 2019. Scotland had the joint meanest defence during the 2021 Six Nations (10 tries conceded) and comfortably the meanest defence in 2020 (five tries conceded), which compares well with the 17 tries conceded during the 2019 Six Nations alone.  

“Steve has been outstanding,” acknowledged Townsend. “He has been over now for 18 months, he has had two Six Nations, a November campaign and the defensive side of our performances have got better and better.  

“We are tough to beat now but Steve is more than just a defence coach. He is someone who connects well with the players and he gets them playing well. He has integrated well with the other coaches and has been a big help to me as head coach, so I’m looking forward to working with him and delighted he has this chance to work with the Lions.”  

Scottish Rugby famously blocked Jason O’Halloran – the former Scotland and Glasgow Warriors attack coach – from being part of the 2017 tour (apparently because he was needed for pre-season at Scotstoun), but now appear to have belatedly reached the conclusion that the interests of the game in this country is better served by being fully integrated into the Lions tradition, rather than being bit-part players as has been the case in recent years.  

“The SRU were fully supportive,” said Tandy, when asked if he was worried that his late call-up might leave Scotland short-handed this summer. “Mark Dodson [Murrayfield chief executive] rang me and was really pleased to have two Scottish representatives on the coaching team.  

“I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday last week that I had a call with Gats, so it has been a bit of a whirlwind since then,” he added. “I am super privileged to be part of Lions history and I cannot wait to get to South Africa.” 

The other two assistant coaches named by Gatland yesterday were Welshmen Robin McBride (forwards) and Neil Jenkins (kicking). While having two Scottish coaches on the five-man panel can only help the prospects of those Scotland players in the frame to make the tour, Townsend stressed that each selection will be based purely on individual merit. 

“If you look at the last two Six Nations there is just one point separating Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England so that shows you how competitive it is between the countries that make up the British and Irish Lions,” he said. “Our players – sorry, Scotland players – are in the mix but are up against very good players from the other three teams.  

“Everyone who we believe can help the Lions – make a difference in the Test matches – is in the mix,” he added. “If you’ve played in the Six Nations that’s going to put you in a stronger position because you’ve gone up against the best teams in Europe.  

“But if you missed out on selection because of injury or because you’ve just not got the favour of the national coaches, and you’re playing really well and you’ve got a style of game that suits what we want to do, then of course you’re going to be in the conversation.  

“We had an initial selection meeting last night that lasted quite a long while, and the number of players we discussed is a lot more than the final number we’re going to select.”  

It was later revealed that the meeting lasted four hours with over 50 names discussed.