Lions Tour 2021: Warren Gatland offers qualified praise for Finn Russell as he rues high penalty count
Warren Gatland was left to rue the high penalty count as he digested the Lions’ 19-16 defeat by South Africa in the third Test which sealed a series victory for the hosts.
It was a case of deja vu for the coach as Morne Steyn land the winning kick, just as the veteran Springbok fly-half had done on the 2009 tour.
Gatland felt the Lions got the raw deal on some marginal decisions but said he was proud of the efforts of his players. He offered qualified praise for Finn Russell, who played almost 70 minutes of the match after Dan Biggar sustained an early injury.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, but I’m really proud of the effort that the boys put in,” said Gatland, who will now take time to consider whether he will be involved in the next Lions tour, to Australia in 2025.
“I thought we were bold, and we went out there to be positive and play some rugby.
“We missed one or two chances and they kind of get a lucky bounce and they score a try against the run of play. There were a couple of 50-50 calls that probably didn’t go our way, but it was a proper Test match. It was tough, it was physical - that’s what you want with a Lions series.
“It was a really tight contest. It could have gone any way. Congratulations to South Africa.
“Probably the most disappointing part of the game was the first 10 minutes of the second half when we just got pinned in our half a little bit then it took us a while to start getting some momentum.”
The teams scored a try apiece and as the Lions pushed for a second score they turned down kickable penalties in favour of going to the corner.
By contrast, South Africa went for goal, with 37-year-old Steyn stepping off the bench to land the Boks’ final two penalties.
“It’s a bit of deja vu, isn’t it?” said Gatland, who was assistant coach on the 2009 tour which South Africa also won 2-1. “The penalty count was against us 15-12 and at this level it’s so important. Your aim is to keep your penalties under 10, and if you can do that it makes a significant difference.
“Big moments with two on one with Liam Williams and Josh Adams - he should have given the pass, probably. You get one or two chances at this level and you’ve got to make the most of it. You’ve got to be clinical when they come around.”
Russell created that opportunity for Williams and the Scotland stand-off was instrumental as the Lions’ produced their most ambitious performance of the Test series.
It was his first match in five weeks following an Achilles injury and the coach was mostly impressed with his playmaker who was making his Lions Test debut.
“He was good,” Gatland acknowledged. “We talked about moving the ball and the ball went through his hands a lot, which was good.
“He’ll be disappointed that he’s dropped a ball in the air which he would probably normally take. He was a bit unlucky on the [Kolbe] tackle, and the left-foot kick down the middle of the park wasn’t one of his best moments.
“He created some stuff and for someone who hasn’t played a lot of rugby I thought he was excellent.”
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