Finn Russell was part of the ‘Geography Six’ on the 2017 tour of New Zealand
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Finn Russell knows his maverick reputation precedes him. He is also aware that he is not perceived to be a ‘Warren Gatland fly-half’ like Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. Yet ahead of the Lions’ opening game on South African soil on Saturday, the Scot insists “I’ll adapt to whatever he wants” to get in the Test team.
Despite his sparkling form for Scotland and Racing 92 for much of the past two years, Russell was considered by many to be a long shot for selection in the Lions squad. If Biggar and Farrell fit Gatland’s prototype of a fly half – rugged, reliable, resilient – like a hand in glove then Russell seems as snug a fit as a sweaty sackcloth.
Russell just seems too unpredictable, too flashy and too risky to be a Gatland selection – not withstanding his call-up as part of the ‘Geography Six’ in 2017 – before he was included in this year’s squad ahead of Jonathan Sexton, a past stalwart. If his impact four years ago was limited to five minutes and being trivia-question material then Russell’s minimum target now is being the Test starter against the world champions. “We’ve all got one goal, which is playing in the series,” Russell said. “Everyone has been training their hardest, and the decision is up to Gats and the coaches as to who they pick in the Tests.”
That may well mean eschewing the type of flamboyant excellence you typically associate with Russell. Yet as the 28-year-old points out he will only push the envelope as far as his coaches with Racing and Scotland – who just so happens to also be the Lions attack coach – allow him to. When he needs to put the brakes on, he can. It was telling that Gatland referenced Russell’s performance in the final Six Nations match against France, which was efficient rather than eye-catching. “In Test matches you’ve got to control the game tactically with kicking,” Russell said. “The defences are so good at coming up hard. In that game (Scotland v France) I kicked more than normal, but it was based on what we wanted to do to try and beat them.
“I was chatting to Gats quickly about the England game a couple of years ago, where we kicked more than England in that game. There’s a lot of running rugby, but we can kick tactically as well. You’ve got to have the balance of both.
“We’ll have a gameplan to play against them, whether it’s a kicking game or running game I’ll have to adapt to whatever he wants. I’d like to think I can do both. I like to run the ball a little bit, but have to adapt. In Test matches you have to play slightly differently – in the Six Nations I kicked it more than normally. In France there is a big focus on running the ball, holding the ball. Against South Africa we’ll have to play a lot more tactically and force pressure on them through the kicking game.”
The Lions landed in South Africa on Sunday
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Russell has learnt to live with the ‘m’ word. “It’s one of these things that has been said since I came through. It’s kind of just stuck. It doesn’t bother me either way.” What does get on his nerves is the idea that so many pieces of his seemingly outrageous mis-passes or chips are indolently improvised, like a magician clicking his fingers.
Instead they are primarily down to hours spent analysing opposition trends, which give him the confidence to execute his skills when the chance presents itself. “It comes down to the analysis, the prep we do before the game, so that if I see an opportunity that could open up I can go for them,” Russell said. “It’s hard work based on analysis, and being on the same page with team-mates. Looking at the European semi-final against Saracens last year the chip over the top might have looked risky, and it potentially was, but it’s something we looked at and had noticed in the week and during the game, that their No 9 is coming into the line more. It was Virimi Vakatawa who called that. It comes down to the players knowing each other and looking for the same space.”
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On a Lions tour that means everyone learning the playbook as quickly as possible. The book part may be a misnomer as it is all digital, but Russell compares it to learning a foreign language. “I would imagine every team has stock plays – everyone kind of uses the same stuff, just with different names,” Russell said. “There are plays I would maybe use more than others. If you look at Ireland and Sexton he always uses the loop, wrap-around. For me it’s a miss-pass or whatever. Each team has a stock phase-play sheet they’ll use, and it’s getting used to the language, and getting everyone on the same page running them.”
Having Townsend as the attack coach, despite their past differences, will help in that regard. The Scotland head coach also provides the perfect example of a flamboyant playmaker, distrusted by many, who still nailed down a starting place in the Lions Test team in 1997. “I know Gregor well and have done for a long time, so that’s handy,” Russell said. “I know his philosophies in attack, he might have to change them to be alongside with what Gats wants.”
Both Gatland and Russell are in agreement that the Test series is likely to be settled by whichever side executes its opportunities. That will also require players who have the bravado to take a risk with a series on the line – and nobody is better suited to that task than Russell. “If I see it’s on I have confidence in my skills so I will always have a crack. You’ve got to make a decision in a split second of what’s best to do. If the space is there I’m not afraid to have a go and try something, whether it’s a miss-pass or whatever.”
Starters for 10: Maggie Alphonsi on the Lions fly-half hopefuls
By Maggie Alphonsi
Strengths: He’s definitely in form, after a good Six Nations with Wales and playing for Northampton. He’s maintained that consistency. He was able to set the bar by starting in that first game against Japan and seems to have a good partnership with Conor Murray. The fact that Murray’s now Lions captain means that could be in his favour. Biggar has excellent vision. The tries for Adams and Van der Merwe were out on the edge and Biggar’s passing cuts out a lot of defenders. Often having a second playmaker is good because it gives you a second set of eyes when you’re attacking, but Biggar’s so strong in that area, he can pretty much see it all on his own. His connection with Warren Gatland from their time with Wales will certainly help the Lions too, given the trust there.
Weaknesses: His defence is pretty good, he comes off the line well at speed. He’s not a confrontational No 10 like Owen Farrell, but he makes his hits. There were maybe a couple of occasions against Japan where he was brushed off the ball by the carrier. It’s not a huge weakness, but it might not be as strong an area as his more obvious strengths. South Africa may target that. He seems to have settled down too as a player in terms of managing his emotions on the field.
Strengths: The respect the players have for him. He’s been voted as one of the leaders on tour and you could see that against Japan when he came on, the respect the other players have for him. That leadership is more important than ever now with Alun Wyn Jones out of the tour – suddenly, Farrell is now one of the key speakers in the group. Attacking wise he plays right on the edge and that’s a big strength of his – he’s able to get those big ball-carriers over the gain line. Particularly against South Africa, you want the Springboks to bite in and try to make big hits and then to move the ball before the contact, to suck in defenders. Finally, his positional flexibility, given he can be rolled out at 10 or 12, and also his experience given this is his third Lions tour and he’s still only 29 years old.
Weaknesses: We haven’t seen him probably at his best this season, and it’s worth asking whether he’s going to be undercooked having been playing in the Championship and not at the top level with Saracens domestically over the last couple of months. It wasn’t his best Six Nations with England either back in the spring.
Strengths: You could split this across the two categories really, but his unpredictability can help the teams he plays in more than it hinders them. His comments were also interesting this week, stressing that he can be relied upon to play the designed systems and can adapt. He has that brilliant ability to vary an attack and to keep defenders honest with his play too, especially with his kicking game, those subtle chips and grubbers which can beat a rushing defensive line. His defence is solid too. And there’s the big benefit of working with Gregor Townsend, his Scotland head coach and running the attack for the Lions.
Weaknesses: There are going to be times in the Test series in particular where the Lions will just want some structure, to keep hold of the ball and go through the phases. Gatland knows that Biggar and Farrell can play that way, and while Russell can too, Gatland may just trust them slightly more than the Scotland No 10, or want Farrell alongside him at 12, which would have a nice balance. Biggar has laid down a marker already, so Russell will need to impress whenever he first gets a chance, potentially this weekend against the Golden Lions.