Finn Russell’s call-up to the Lions may have come late, and he is probably pencilled in only for a role in the midweek team, but as he prepared to leave Sydney for New Zealand he was adamant he has no intention of tamely sitting on the match-day bench but aims to make an impact.
“Nobody wants to go on tour just to make up the numbers,” said Russell who has been called into the squad alongside Scotland prop Allan Dell. “Everyone’s going there to push for positions. There are three stand-offs out there just now, so it’s obviously tough, but I’ll go there, get up to speed as quickly as possible and take it from there.
“I’ll have to go and learn the game plan as quickly as possible and try to get up to speed. It will be tough coming in, so I won’t be talking too far ahead. I’ll be preparing myself for the job I have to do when I get there.”
The decision had been made before Scotland got their first win over Australia in Sydney, but if Warren Gatland, the Lions coach, watches the video of that game, he might he tempted to take Russell at his word and push him into a starting XV – especially if he is looking to spark a bit of creativity in the side.
He demonstrated the full range of skills, pushing the ball out to the backs when it was on, keeping the forwards involved, kicking for position astutely, producing a flawless display off the tee, which was the eventual difference between the teams after they shared the try count at three apiece. You just can’t argue with a performance that earns 14 of a team’s 24 points.
All that, he later admitted, despite having picked up on the reports that he was going to get the official nod after the game. “My mate from back home texted me to ask if I was going, but I didn’t have a clue. I just had to focus on the Australia game. I didn’t think about it much at all,” he said.
The worst thing of all would have been to get so close and then get injured, but Russell insisted there was no temptation to play it safe. He lived up to that as he tackled the biggest forwards on the pitch, got hit late numerous times and picked up another two stitches in the face wound opened up last week.
“I’m enjoying myself,” he explained. “I’m enjoying the way I’m playing and the way the team is playing. There were a few big shots on the pitch but I just laugh them off. I’m just smiling the whole time. I’m enjoying myself more than anyone.
“It’s not really sunk in yet in, I guess. I’ll just try and take it in my stride and get ready to go. It should be fun meeting up with everyone and getting to know the guys.”
It shows how tough it is that the last Scotland stand-off to play for the Lions was the current Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend, 20 years ago in 1997. “I didn’t know that,” Russell admitted. “It’s awesome to be selected. If Gregor was the last ten to go, it’s pretty good that I’m the next one.”
In a way there was no complete surprise when Russell’s name was announced – he had been close to being picked for the original squad – but the other Scotland player to be heading for New Zealand came right out of left field.
Allan Dell is less than a year into his international career, has not even started every game since he broke through and probably would not have been playing Test rugby at all had it not been for injuries that kept Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland out of contention at club and national level.
He seemed as stunned as anyone. “I only found out driving back from the [Australia] game on the bus,” he said in the Scotland team hotel in Sydney. “I don’t know what to say. I’m so happy.”
It has been a great year for Dell, a mobile prop more in the traditions of David Sole or Tom Smith rather than a scrummaging beast. Twelve months ago, he was probably third choice prop at Edinburgh. Injuries to others won him a run of games for the club; the same injuries helped smooth the path into the national side last November and now to the highest peak of all.
“I had heard rumours, but you can’t take anything from that. There were rumours around about the original announcement and lots of them were wrong, so I could not take anything from these ones,” he added.