Lions Tour 2021: Finn Russell earmarked for second-half role in third Test decider

Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris and Anthony Watson have been left to carry the can for the Lions’ second Test defeat by South Africa as Warren Gatland seeks to rescue a tour in danger of plumbing the depths.

Finn Russell has been earmarked for a role in the second half. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Finn Russell has been earmarked for a role in the second half. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Gatland has vowed to “play more rugby” in Saturday’s third Test decider but he could hardly say otherwise after last weekend’s turgid affair in which the Lions offered next to nothing in an attacking sense.

The stultifying nature of the game and the bad blood between the two sides has tarnished this tour, with the final game now an opportunity to rehabilitate the Lions brand.

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In response, the head coach has swung the axe, making six personnel changes to his starting XV, with the aforementioned trio banished from the matchday 23. Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie also drop out of the team but at least they find a place on the bench.

The cavalry comes in the form of Liam Williams, who replaces Hogg at full-back, Josh Adams, in for Watson on the right wing, and Bundee Aki, picked at inside centre in a midfield reshuffle that sees Robbie Henshaw moved from 12 to 13 at the expense of Harris.

The other changes see the welcome return of Ali Price as starting scrum-half in place of Murray, and Welsh pair Wyn Jones and Ken Owens selected in the front row instead of loosehead Vunipola and hooker Cowan-Dickie, respectively.

It’s bold but not as radical as some might have hoped. Finn Russell must be content with a place on the bench as Gatland keeps faith with the more prosaic Dan Biggar as his starting stand-off. Owen Farrell drops out of the squad.

Rory Sutherland, a starter in the first Test victory and a replacement at the weekend, is also missing from the 23 and there is no call-up for his Scotland team-mate Hamish Watson as Tom Curry retains the No 7 jersey.

Ali Price will add more tempo to the Lions' game. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Kyle Sinckler’s citing over a biting allegation has been dismissed, meaning the England prop is able to take his place on the bench, nixing Zander Fagerson’s hopes of a call-up in the process.

Gatland has made it clear that he felt last Saturday’s game was lost in the air as the Lions struggled to cope with South Africa’s high balls. The back three must assume responsibility and Hogg, who looked assured in the first Test, has been cast aside along with Watson. The surprise is that Duhan van der Merwe retains his place. The big Scotland wing seemed to get caught up in the emotion of the occasion on Saturday and was sin-binned for a wild trip on Cheslin Kolbe. He perhaps has credit in the bank from the first Test.

“We just felt that there were certain things from the weekend, particularly the aerial battle - we just got nothing out of that,” said Gatland.

“There have been some really, really tough calls. Stuart has had the first two games, and one of the definite strengths of Liam Williams is his aerial game, and unfortunately with our whole back three last week we weren’t great in that area, we put a lot of balls down. So, we felt that we needed to make a couple of changes there.”

Duhan van der Merwe has retained his place for the third Test. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Harris is unfortunate to lose his place. The Scotland centre was starved of the ball last Saturday but makes way to accommodate Aki who Gatland said will be used to negate the threat of Damian de Allende at 12, with Henshaw moving 13.

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The coach sees a role for Russell in the second half, with the stand-off poised for a Lions Test debut after a month out following an Achilles tear.

“Finn comes in as someone who is just back to full fitness,” said Gatland. “It has taken the whole tour. And he adds something a little bit different and hopefully in the second half when things loosen up a little bit, we do get some more ball-in-play time and we do get some tempo that he can come on and add to that.

“We definitely want to play some more rugby. We just didn’t get that opportunity in the second half."

The Lions coach hasn’t hidden his frustration with South Africa’s attempts to slow the game down and hopes the inclusion of Price can quicken the pace. The Glasgow Warriors scrum-half certainly did that in the first Test and his omission from the next game smacked of needless caution on the part of Gatland.

“We’ve been pleased with Ali on this tour in terms of the tempo that he’s brought, and that’s why we are moving him back in,” said the Kiwi.

With the first half of the second Test lasting over an hour, Gatland was left exasperated by the number of stoppages which he felt played into South Africa’s hands.

Many of the breaks in play were instigated by the world champions and there were also frequent delays while referee Ben O’Keeffe checked a host of decisions with television match official Marius Jonker, just days after South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus released an extraordinary hour-long video attacking the performance of the officials from the first Test.

“We felt that at every scrum there was an injury slowing the game down,” said Gatland. “I think there was something like 14 minutes of TMO time and we’re pretty high from a conditioning point of view but it was very stop-start and that made it frustrating for us.

“We want to keep the tempo of the game up, to get the ball in and out of scrums, to get the ball in quickly at lineouts, to play and get a flow. And South Africa, at the moment, don’t want to do that.

“We can’t have 60-odd minute halves. It’s important that we keep that flow in the game, as much from a spectator point of view, who want to see good rugby but didn’t get that at the weekend.”

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