Lions Tour 2021: Finn Russell attacking intent shows the Lions what they could have had

He was on the pitch for 70 minutes on Saturday and Finn Russell injected more creativity into the Lions play than had been shown in the previous two Tests combined.

Finn Russell and Ali Price take a moment to reflect on the Lions' narrow defeat by the Springboks in the third Test which saw South Africa win the series 2-1. Picture: David Gibson/Fotosport/Shutterstock
Finn Russell and Ali Price take a moment to reflect on the Lions' narrow defeat by the Springboks in the third Test which saw South Africa win the series 2-1. Picture: David Gibson/Fotosport/Shutterstock

From the moment he stepped off the bench to replace the injured Dan Biggar, the Scotland stand-off played with an attacking intent that had hitherto been missing from the series.

Ultimately, it wasn’t quite enough and the Springboks won the deciding third match 19-16 but it is tempting to wonder what the outcome might have been had Russell been involved sooner.

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He had trained in the week leading up to the second Test after recovering from an Achilles tear but Warren Gatland preferred to start with Dan Biggar at ten and Owen Farrell on the bench.

That game turned out to be a stodgy affair in which neither fly-half did much to spark the Lions. The coach stuck with Biggar for the third Test, promoting Russell to the bench, and his hand was only forced by the Welshman’s knee injury.

Gatland’s reluctance to take a chance on Russell suggested an innate conservatism on the part of the coach whose original intention was to deploy the playmaker at some point in the second half when “the game opened up”.

In truth, it needed someone of Russell’s vision to create the opportunities that allowed the Lions to attack South Africa in a way they hadn’t done previously in the series.

The coach’s cautious approach seemed at odds with the Lions players’ risky strategy of turning down three-point opportunities in favour of kicking for the corner.

Siya Kolisi, the South Africa captain, raises the trophy as his team celebrate their series victory over the Lions. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

The tactic worked for Ken Owens’ first-half try from the lineout maul but failed thereafter, most grievously in the 68th minute when the tourists rejected the chance to kick a penalty to draw level and then found themselves repelled by the home defence.

As Alun Wyn Jones himself noted, hindsight is a wonderful thing but given the tightness of the contest the Lions would have been better served going for the points.

Gatland said it was the players’ decision and perhaps they felt duty bound to strive for tries given the criticism that followed the second Test.

“The players made that call,” confirmed the coach. “They just felt at the time that they wanted to keep the pressure on South Africa. You’ve got to back those decisions.”

Finn Russell was a huge creative influence for the Lions in the third Test. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Russell was the creative fulcrum behind the Lions’ best moves and it was odd that Gatland seemed as keen to highlight that stand-off’s errors as praise him in the post-match interviews.

While acknowledging the substitute had been “excellent”, Gatland also noted that Russell had dropped a high ball, been wayward with a kick and been “unlucky” in a tackle. It was a strange assessment.

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The player himself expressed his frustration at having to watch from the sidelines and clearly felt he could have swung the series in the Lions’ favour had injury not intervened.

Lions coach Warren Gatland revealed it was the players' decision to go for the corner rather than kick penalties. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Russell played in the first two matches in South Africa, against the Sigma Lions and the Sharks, before succumbing to the Achilles issue.

“It has been a bit of a frustrating tour for me,” he admitted. “I tore my Achilles at the start but tried to get on with it, so the first couple of games maybe weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, but I played quite well [on Saturday night].

“When I’ve been watching games, the way I play is slightly different and I’ve been watching it and thinking that I could have done one or two things slightly differently and we might maybe have had different outcomes in the ‘A’ game and the second Test.

“But I am happy that I got a chance to show the style of rugby that I would have played against South Africa, so it is pleasing that I got in and chucked it around a little bit.”

The Lions’ first-half dominance was not reflected in their 10-6 interval lead, with Russell adding a conversion and a penalty to Owens’ try. Handre Pollard’s two penalties kept the host in touch and when Cheslin Kolbe danced past Williams and Luke Cowan-Dickie to score the series’ defining try it was suddenly advantage Springboks. Pollard converted to set up a tense final 20 minutes before making way for Morne Steyn, the grizzled playmaker who had speared the Lions way back in 2009 on their last visit.

Russell had drawn the visitors level at 13-13 by this point but Steyn edged the Boks ahead again with a 66th minute penalty.

The Lions then went for broke, turning down a kickable penalty in pursuit of the try which never came. They got one more penalty and opted to kick for goal this time, Russell making it 16-16 with six minutes remaining. But destiny was calling Steyn who, at 37 and after five years in the international wilderness, kicked the match-winning penalty in the 78th minute.

It was a cruel ending to the series and in particular for Jones, the Lions captain who was playing in his fourth and final tour. His fervent hope is that the composite side he served with such distinction retains its place in a crowded rugby calendar.

This summer's trip to South Africa was squeezed from six weeks to five and Gatland has repeatedly stated his desire for prospective series to be protected when rugby's powerbrokers discuss the future of the world schedule.

Jones echoed the coach’s view and believes Lions contests remain among the pinnacle of the sport.

“In its most basic concept it is something that is very special and it ignites the imagination in children and adults and it is something that rugby has hung its hat on for a long, long time,” said the skipper.

“It is up there with all of those international competitions and rugby World Cups. It is very special and if rugby were to lose it, it would be a travesty.”

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