THE Lions’ tour to South Africa may have ended in failure, at least in terms of the result of the Test series. But there are several reasons to believe that, no matter the outcome of the matches that mattered most, it was still a significant success for Scottish rugby.

For a start, there was the simple fact that our representation was greater than it had been for decades. Think back to three months ago: how many Scots did you hope or expect to be chosen by head coach Warren Gatland? Three, four, five at a push?

If you had said eight, you would have been written off as a wild romantic with no knowledge of how the British and Irish select actually works. But eight it was, and Zander Fagerson, Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Rory Sutherland, Duhan van der Merwe and Hamish Watson all duly travelled with the squad. 

Similarly, after having minimal representation in Lions Tests since the turn of the century - Tom Smith in 2001 having been the last Scot to start in one - we enjoyed far greater participation this time. Hogg, Van der Merwe, Price and Sutherland all started the first one, a 22-17 victory, with Watson coming off the bench. 

In the second Test, which the tourists lost 27-9, Hogg and Van der Merwe were joined in the starting line-up by Harris and this time Sutherland and Price were used as substitutes. And finally, in Saturday’s 19-16 loss, Van der Merwe and Price started, and were soon joined by Russell, who had been out for five weeks with an achilles injury.

What is the significance of this other than as a legitimate source of national pride? Simply that, when a lot of Scottish internationals are exposed to this highest level of the game, the national side tends to benefit.

Back in 1983, for example, the squad that toured New Zealand and was coached by Jim Telfer included eight Scots. Roy Laidlaw, John Rutherford and Iain Milne were among them, and the following year they won the Grand Slam.

Then in 1989 there were nine Scots on the tour to Australia, including captain Finlay Calder, David Sole and the Hastings brothers. The following year they too won the Grand Slam.

SIx Scots were involved in the 1997 tour to South Africa, including current national coach Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait. In 1999, they became Five Nations champions.

True, there is a chicken-and-egg element in this. For so many Scots to be chosen, the national team must already be in decent shape - which is also the case this year. But touring with the Lions has undeniably accelerated the learning and enhanced the self-confidence of many Scots, not least because working and living alongside the best players from England, Ireland and Wales has shown them that they are in no way inferior. In other words, roll on the 2022 Six Nations.

As far as the individual players and their contributions to the tour are concerned, pride of place probably has to go to Russell. The stand-off came closer than anyone on Saturday to inspiring the Lions to a win in a display that, after the conservative play that characterised the first two Tests, was a moral victory for his style of adventurous rugby. 

Even if Russell had been fit, he would probably not have started the first two Tests ahead of Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. And had he started, who is to say that the Springboks would not have won anyway? But the way in which he went about his job in that third Test was, and will remain for some time, a shining example of the sport as it can and should be played.   

Van der Merwe, meanwhile, had an excellent tour against the country of his birth. The winger may have had little chance to show off his devastating strength in attack, but he was pretty impressive in defence, which was previously seen as the weakest side of his game.

Price went on tour as the third-choice No 9 but ended it as clearly the form player in his position, which has to be a massive boost to a player whose original selection was by no means assured. Harris was underused yet still did more than enough as a whole on tour to justify his place in the squad, and the same could be said of Watson, while Hogg got little chance to show off his counter-attacking skills at their best and had to deal with a period in isolation as a close Covid contact. 

Up front, Sutherland was dropped for the third Test once Wyn Jones was fit again, but he still surely learned a lot about life at this level. And Fagerson, although the only Scot not to feature in the Tests, can put this tour down to experience and come back stronger in four years’ time.

In the end, there was no triumph and a whole lot of adversity on a tour that will be remembered more for the fractious atmosphere on and off the pitch than for the rugby. But for Townsend’s Scotland, it may prove in time to have been the next serious step in the already-impressive progress they have made over the past year and a half.