Finn Russell challenged by Warren Gatland to stake claim for Lions Test place

Warren Gatland has challenged Finn Russell to force his way into his Test side after naming a Lions squad with the biggest contingent of Scots in 32 years.

Finn Russell was part of the Lions tour in 2017 in New Zealand but is expected to play a far bigger role this time. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

An impressive Six Nations campaign for Gregor Townsend’s side has been rewarded with the selection of eight Scotland players in Gatland’s 37-strong touring party for South Africa.

Russell is included alongside scrum-half Ali Price, outside centre Chris Harris, wing Duhan van der Merwe, full-back Stuart Hogg, props Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson, and flanker Hamish Watson who, it turns out, isn’t too small after all.

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Not since 1989 has there been so many Scots on a Lions tour. On that occasion, Finlay Calder led a squad containing nine Scotland players to a series victory in Australia.

A repeat in South Africa would do nicely and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones will skipper the side on the three-Test trip.

Gatland, who is taking charge for the third time, believes Russell can rise to the occasion and praised the stand-off’s maturing, more balanced game.

“I thought the best game Finn played in the Six Nations was against France, and what impressed me was his game management – the way he controlled the game, turned France around and put them under pressure,” said Gatland, whose other fly-halves are Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell.

“He moved the ball when the opportunities came about as well as his kicking game putting them under pressure.

Hamish Watson celebrates his call up to the British & Irish Lions squad. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“He’s got so much more of a balanced game now in terms of when to run, when to turn teams around and when to kick.

“We understand that there are some real quality teams out there and I wanted to send a message, especially to Finn, that we back him and we have confidence in him to put pressure on other teams and put his hand up for the Test side.”

Gatland admitted it was the toughest squad he’d ever had to pick, such was the competition. He sent out around 70 letters to players - not 50, as reported - to check availability and received only one negative response, which was for personal reasons. He would like to think those who did not make the cut will consider themselves on the standby list.

Johnny Sexton, the veteran Ireland stand-off, was the most high-profile omission but Jonny Gray can also consider himself unlucky.

Other leading players overlooked were England pair Kyle Sinckler and Jonny May, and Ireland lock James Ryan. Bundee Aki was selected ahead of Irish team-mate Garry Ringrose.

Gatland gave short shrift to the notion that Edinburgh breakaway Watson was not big enough for the rigours of a Test series with the Springboks, a theory espoused by one English newspaper.

“He was Six Nations player of the year so he can’t be that small,” said the coach

“We know he’s brave and we know he’s physical. He’s going to have to get over the ball and jackal and win turnovers, as will the other loose forwards. We know he can carry, he’s going to look at footwork and the variation in terms of his offloading game.

"He deserves this – he has been a handful for players to come up against and there is no doubt he’s been an important part of that Scottish team and the success that they’ve had.”

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