Warren Gatland explains his Scottish-flavoured Lions selection and plays down Finn Russell injury news

Warren Gatland is not known for being overly sentimental but the Lions coach has gone out of his way to ensure there is a strong Scottish flavour to Saturday’s fixture against Japan at BT Murrayfield.

Finn Russell in training with the British and Irish Lions. He won't play against Japan on Saturday due to a minor ankle issue. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Finn Russell in training with the British and Irish Lions. He won't play against Japan on Saturday due to a minor ankle issue. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Five home-based players have been included in the matchday 23, with Edinburgh trio Duhan van der Merwe Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson and Glasgow prop Zander Fagerson all picked to start. Ali Price, the Glasgow scrum-half, is named among the substitutes.

Finn Russell was close to joining Price on the bench but is nursing a minor ankle issue and Gatland has erred on the side of caution. Chris Harris, the Scotland outside centre, also came into contention but will not be involved this weekend, while Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain, will be playing for Exeter Chiefs in the English Premiership final against Harlequins at Twickenham.

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Murrayfield will be a quarter full and the restricted crowd of 16,500 is the biggest attendance for a rugby match in the UK since the pandemic.

Edinburgh's three Lions players, Hamish Watson, Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland, have been picked to start against Japan at BT Murrayfield.

“It’s brilliant that we’re going to have some crowd there in Edinburgh,” said Gatland. “There’ll be 16,500 which is going to be fantastic and great for the players.”

It should be especially motivating for the Scots as they set about staking a claim for Test places in South Africa.

For the first time since 1950, the Lions have picked a starting XV devoid of England players, although Gatland’s hand was forced to a certain extent. With Exeter still involved in the domestic season, and the late arrival in camp of the Saracens contingent, he did not have a full complement from which to choose. And while it might be a crowd-pleasing selection, the coach thinks it can “do a job” on the World Cup quarter-finalists.

“I think if you’re playing in Scotland you want to have a reasonable representation of Scottish players,” he said. “I think it is important that they get a chance to play at Murrayfield in front of their home fans and family.

Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe has impressed Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

“It was a bit of motivation in terms of having Scottish representation. If it were me as a player I would love that chance to play at home in front of friends and family.”

In case anyone thought the Scots had been picked on sentiment alone, Gatland was keen to reiterate the contribution they have made this season.

“Hamish has been the Six Nations player of the year and his performances during the championship speak for themselves,” said the coach. “Duhan offers something different, he was the top try scorer in the Six Nations and for a guy who weighs 110 kg he gets some go forward. But it’s not just his power - he’s got good footwork, he’s quick and has that ability to finish off and score.”

The inclusion of a third Edinburgh player, Sutherland, is particularly pleasing. The loosehead has not played since dislocating his shoulder during Scotland’s win over France in Paris at the end of March. The injury had threatened his inclusion in the Lions squad but the Hawick man has worked hard to prove his fitness

“We kept a close eye on his shoulder injury,” noted Gatland. “He could have played for Edinburgh about a week ago, but we didn’t feel we needed him to do that to show his fitness. He was ready, but we just gave him a little more time.

“He loves being in the gym and we know how powerful and strong he is. We’re not too worried about his fitness and it’s just going out there and doing his job. If he’s lacking a little bit of game time we’ve got Wyn Jones to come off the bench and hopefully the whole 23 will get game time. We’re comfortable and confident he’ll get through the game without any issues. He’s been doing all the driving and mauling and lineout stuff and scrums with no issues at all.”

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Sutherland will have Fagerson for company in the front row, with Wales hooker Ken Owens in between.

“We were impressed with the way the Scottish scrum went during the Six Nations,” added Gatland. “Rory is incredibly explosive and powerful and had a good championship and Zander’s done a great job on the tighthead. It’s a great chance for the Scottish boys to go out there and have that opportunity at home in front of their fans and family members.”

Russell arrived in camp this week following Racing 92’s elimination from the French Top 14 play-offs at the semi-final stage but he won’t be risked against Japan.

“He got a slight strain last week with Racing so we thought we’d give him a little bit more time to get that ankle right, even though he’s training fully,” said Gatland.

Dan Biggar will wear the No 10 jersey at Murrayfield, with Owen Farrell on the bench to provide cover at stand-off and inside centre.

It will be a three-way fight between Biggar, Russell and Farrell for the Test berth and although the former two were the form horses in the Six Nations, Gatland trusts Farrell to prove his worth in South Africa

“I’ve spoken to Owen,” said Gatland. “The chat is that it probably wasn’t the greatest Six Nations but we’ve picked him on the leadership that he can bring and the experience he can bring to the group.

“He is a fantastic competitor. What he has achieved already in the game – the success he has had – speaks for itself. One the things we did in the administration day was I asked the players to vote and pick four [players for] a leadership group, and what I thought was interesting was that he ended up with the most votes out of anyone in the leadership group, so that speaks volumes for the respect he is held in for the other players in the group, and not just the England players.”

British & Irish Lions (v Japan, BT Murrayfield, Saturday, 3pm)

15. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales)

14. Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales)

13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland)

12. Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland)

11. Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh, Scotland)

10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales)

9. Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland)

1. Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh, Scotland)

2. Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales)

3. Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)

4. Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland)

5. Alun Wyn Jones, captain (Ospreys, Wales)

6.Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland)

7. Hamish Watson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

8. Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland)

Replacements:

16. Jamie George (Saracens, England)

17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales)

18. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland)

19. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England)

20. Taulupe Faletau (Bath, Wales)

21. Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)

22. Owen Farrell (Saracens, England)

23. Anthony Watson (Bath, England)

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