WHEN Finn Russell was a late call-up to the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand as one of the infamous ‘Geography Six’, his role was to make up the numbers in training, sit on the bench during provincial games so that the Test players could get a day off, and only get on the park if it was absolutely necessary.
Warren Gatland made it clear that he is hoping to give the Scottish playmaker a whole lot more opportunity this time round after naming the 28-year-old as one of eight Scots in his 37-man squad for this summer’s trip to South Africa yesterday.
“I thought the best game Finn played in the Six Nations was against France, and what impressed me was his game management – the way he controlled the game, turned France around to put them under pressure, and then moved the ball when the opportunities came,” said the coach. “He’s got so much more of a balanced game now in terms of when to run and when to turn teams around with a kick.
“I wanted to send a message, especially to Finn, that we back him, and we have confidence in him to put pressure on other teams and put his hand up for the Test side. I thought that was a really good message for me to be able to deliver to someone like Finn.”
Russell’s selection comes at the expense of Johnny Sexton, who has been starting stand-off in five out of the six Tests played during the two previous tours Gatland has been in charge of and came off the bench in the one he didn’t start. The coach admitted that he had a heavy heart leaving the Irishman out but feared the 35-year-old might struggle to last the duration of what is expected to a physically and mentally gruelling expedition.
“The last time Johnny played three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018 and he has had a number of different injuries,” the coach continued. “I was concerned about taking him and he couldn’t play games or make it through the tour meaning we had to call someone up – in such an important position we wanted to get it right and get that message right.
“We understand about Johnny and how disappointed he may be. What a player he is. It came down to the physicality – and it wasn’t anything about concussion, I can promise you – but looking at durability and how tough South Africa is going to be from that point of view.”
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Gatland – who selected only two Scots in his initial squads for the 2013 and 2017 tours – has been accused in the past of having an anti-Scottish bias by frustrated supporters from north of the border, but the 57-year-old insisted that he has always selected on merit, and explained that this bumper crop is down to the national team’s improved performances during the last two seasons.
He also dismissed the suggestion that having Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and defence coach Steve Tandy in his management team had been a factor.
“When you pick a Lions squad, you don’t look at what nations the players come from – you probably look at that afterwards,” he said. “I was involved as an assistant coach in 2009 when Ian McGeechan – who is a Scottish rugby legend – was the head coach and I think we had two Scots on that tour.
“The pleasing thing for me is that in the last Six Nations, those two wins away from home against England and France put a lot of Scottish players into contention, so it wasn’t about them [Townend and Tandy] pushing the Scottish players, it was about picking people we thought could do the job for us.”
Gatland added that the biggest challenge in selection had been finding the right blend to play a positive brand of rugby whilst still being able to match the ferocious power expected from the world champion Springboks.
“I think South Africa have gone back to their DNA – their mentality is about winning that physical battle,” he said. “Obviously, we want to play some really good rugby, but we are also going to have to roll our sleeves up and get in the trenches to battle it out with them. It’s going to be tough – it is going to be brutal at times.”
He added that selecting characters who will thrive whilst trapped in a bubble environment for nine weeks was also crucial. “It is important for me that we get things right in terms of the well-being and mental health of the players. The rugby is going to be the easy part, if we get the other stuff right then well have a chance when we get on the field.
“This is the toughest squad I’ve ever had to try and get right.”