Lions Tour 2021: Gregor Townsend on how the Lions can create more and why Finn Russell deserves his chance
Anyone expecting a festival of free-flowing rugby in Cape Town on Saturday is likely to be disappointed but Gregor Townsend is fully aware that the Lions need to rediscover their creative mojo if they are to salvage the series.
A desperately disappointing defeat in the second Test has shifted momentum towards South Africa who are odds on with most bookmakers to win the decider.
Townsend, as attack coach, is charged with finding a way to breach the Springboks’ blitz defence as the tourists seek to avoid the fate which befell the class of 2001, the last Lions squad to win the first Test but lose the series.
There was a bluntness about Warren Gatland’s side last weekend as South Africa frustrated them for an hour before their half-backs produced two moments of sublime skill to unlock the Lions defence.
Townsend, a creator supreme in his own playing days, knows they need to ask more questions of their hosts. The alarming stat from the second Test was that Dan Biggar passed the ball only three times, hardly conducive to flowing rugby. Townsend sought to explain the anomaly but recognised the failings of last weekend.
“We have got to create more, that’s for sure,” he said, while noting that openings may only come by grinding down the opposition. “If you create opportunities, whether that comes through errors in the defence that can get you linebreaks that lead to tries, that gives you a better chance to win the game. But you may create more through pressure, through fatiguing opposition, getting penalties. In these tight Test matches, that could be enough to win the game.
“We did that well in the first Test, especially in the second half. We were building into that sort of performance in the first half of the second Test but we didn’t do it for 80 minutes.
“We know that we have to control the game more by moving South Africa around, draining them of energy whenever we can. That will be an area where we focus for sure.”
Townsend thinks the Lions need to produce a performance which combines the second-half display in the first Test with the first-half showing in the second. The tourists won both halves of rugby but only narrowly and the 80-plus minutes yielded little in attack.
Nevertheless, Biggar retains the No 10 jersey, with Finn Russell expected to be kept in reserve until midway through the second half. The Welsh stand-off is unlikely to change tack too much, with the Lions set to persist with a kicking strategy which Townsend insists was effective in the first 40 last Saturday.
“It was a half of rugby where Dan was at 10 where he made really good decisions and was pretty accurate, particularly his kicking game.
“Dan didn’t play a huge amount in the second half [he was replaced by Owen Farrell after 57 minutes] so if we are looking at a passing stat, he obviously didn’t play 80 minutes and in that second half we didn’t get that much ball.”
Russell has waited a long time for his chance after an Achilles injury early in the tour set him back. A Lions Test debut in the climactic stages of a series decider sounds like the ideal stage for the Scotland stand-off.
“He’s got himself on the bench because we know he can ask different questions [compared to] any fly-half in the world and he’s trained really well this week – outstanding on Tuesday and again on Thursday,” said Townsend. “If he does get on then I look forward to seeing him play but obviously we're looking at our 15 to begin with doing all they can to win this game.”
As has been the norm on this tour, the Lions management met with the refereeing team ahead of the Test and they pressed home their concerns about South Africa’s tendency to slow the game down. Each half lasted over 60 minutes last Saturday, a scenario which suited the hosts and frustrated the visitors.
“We have made the point that we don’t want unnecessary stoppages,” said Townsend. “So I’d like to think that it will be a shorter game this weekend than last weekend.”
In a bid to speed things up, Ali Price has been recalled as starting scrum-half after impressing in the first Test.
“We want to see him be accurate, get that ball away quickly from the rucks, be very good with his kicking game as that is very important,” added Townsend. “He helped us take control of the game in that first Test. If there is ever an opportunity he will be encouraged to take it as he has the pace to go through those gaps.”
The Scotland coach thinks there is more to come from this Lions side and they have enough talent to break free of the Springboks’ suffocating defence. To do so they must show far more ambition than they have done thus far in the Test series but Townsend is confident they can strike the right balance when it matters.
“For me, and I hope the team feel this as well, we have the ability to score tries, we have the ability to put the South African defence under pressure which can open up opportunities later in the game or can lead to three points, six points. And I believe to win a Test match against a quality opposition you’ve got to get a 20-point or more scoreline, to have more control of the outcome,” he said.
“We have got to do that through all aspects, whether it’s the set piece, our defence getting us penalties and the ball back, but in particular our attack, creating and finishing off opportunities.”
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