Finn Russell and Owen Farrell created plenty of chances

Credit: Getty Images

The countdown is quickening. Just four more tour matches remain until the British and Irish Lions are due to begin what should be a compelling series against the Springboks.

Time is running out for Warren Gatland to settle upon a combination to beat South Africa. And, despite a 56-14 victory over the Sigma Lions that was largely encouraging, Saturday’s outing only served to reinforce how difficult and multi-faceted selection will be.

Midfield must be under the brightest spotlight, because any decision will have ripple effects that alter the balance of the match-day 23.

Four years ago in New Zealand, Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton were paired together for an hour of a 12-3 triumph against the Crusaders. That 10-12 axis was then put away until Sexton came off the bench in the first Test.

Gatland cannot be accused of conservatism this summer. Already, he has cycled through five midfield arrangements:

  • 10. Dan Biggar, 12. Bundee Aki, 13. Robbie Henshaw (55 minutes against Japan)
  • 10. Dan Biggar, 12. Owen Farrell 13. Robbie Henshaw (25 minutes against Japan)
  • 10. Finn Russell, 12. Owen Farrell, 13. Chris Harris (60 minutes against Sigma Lions)
  • 10. Owen Farrell, 12. Chris Harris, 13. Elliot Daly (nine minutes against Sigma Lions)
  • 10. Owen Farrell, 12. Bundee Aki, 13. Elliot Daly (11 minutes against Sigma Lions)

Some of these will be revisited and there are more to come, but none as intriguing as the deployment of Russell and Farrell in tandem. Unthinkable in any scenario outside a Lions tour, it produced mixed yet fascinating results in practice at Ellis Park. Just do not be certain that Gatland has written it off.

When it worked

If there were any concerns that Russell’s instincts would be stifled by the presence of Farrell on his shoulder, those went out of the window within 30 seconds of kick-off.

Ali Price hoisted a box-kick that Sigma Lions full-back EW Viljoen could not gather under pressure from Josh Adams and Hamish Watson. Kyle Sinckler completed the turnover and trundled up-field.

Sensing an opportunity in transition, Maro Itoje steps up at scrum-half:

Russell gathers his lock’s pass and glances towards the near touchline…

…and so nearly locates Louis Rees-Zammit:

Ironically, this is reminiscent of Jonny May’s try against South Africa in June 2018, fashioned by Danny Cipriani’s quick-thinking:

The Lions will aim to attack from recovered kicks because transition situations mitigate the Springboks’ defensive organisation.

There was another little trick at play for Rees-Zammit’s try. Russell and Farrell shape the attack together, the former taking the lead and the latter content with a more understated role. It begins with skipper Stuart Hogg, who was excellent, gathering a high ball:

Russell and Farrell edge away into midfield…

…and Price sets up a box-kick at the back of a long ruck with Adams staying onside amid the attention of referee AJ Jacobs:

It is a fake box-kick routine, though. Instead of launching another high ball, Price stands up…

…and turns to fizz a pass away:

Russell then feeds Harris, who has joined the backline between the two playmakers:

The Sigma Lions scramble well, Sibahle Maxwane pressing up to cut off a path to Rees-Zammit. Harris runs across the pitch, with Farrell cutting underneath him to hold covering defenders:

On the next phase, Jamie George flips a short pass to Courtney Lawes. Farrell, at the previous breakdown, drops back. Notice Russell organising the forwards beyond him:

Russell is at first-receiver next, and fires a flat pass to Sinckler. Note that this three-man forward pod is in a curved alignment. Because Sinckler is ahead of Taulupe Faletau and Jonny Hill, all three are able to receive a pass. Remember that for the scoring phase.

Meanwhile, Adams is hugging the touchline and poised for a kick-pass. Russell stresses defences in numerous ways:

Watch the rest of the attack play out. Russell plays a pass to Itoje from first-receiver before the Lions bounce back towards the near touchline. Hill is the next first-receiver, dropping the ball off to Faletau. Then the Lions strike:

The midfield interplay between Russell, Jamie George and Farrell is worth a closer look. Again, Russell feeds the furthest forward in the three-man pod. His pass travels across Wyn Jones and Lawes:

This time though, George spins to locate a looping Farrell. The near side of the field is opened up in an instant and, with another pass to Harris, the Lions have outflanked their opponents:

Lions vs Lions – Jamie George pass

Farrell has run these circle patterns for years. Here is Mako Vunipola finding Farrell ahead of Jack Nowell’s try in Eddie Jones’ first game in charge of England in February 2016:

And here is the same play in action for Saracens against Munster in December 2019:

mako Pivot

George Ford and Max Malins were the other playmakers at first-receiver on these occasions. Dovetailing with a different distributor, Farrell combined with Russell in varying ways for the Lions’ next three tries.

Watch the build-up to Hamish Watson’s close-range score. From a shortened lineout, the ball goes through the hands of both Russell and Farrell before Harris carries dominantly. From there, Price switches direction and Lawes offloads to Itoje. In behind the hosts, Gatland’s charges stay patient and eventually strike via a quick-tap penalty:

The phase prior to the breakdown penalty is interesting. Russell adopts the position of first-receiver and starts to organise…

…before throwing a no-look pass to Watson. This is more effective and convincing because Farrell has arced into the second-receiver slot:

Indeed, it resembles how Sexton sent through Jamie George in the second Test against New Zealand in 2017 because Farrell’s presence was distracting Ngani Laumape:

Back to Johannesburg, and Farrell’s swivel pass from a deliberately overthrown lineout sets up Price’s try:

This reverse angle shows how Russell manipulates the defence from that first-phase strike-move by fading out of the back.

Although his centre partner Burger Odendaal is struggling to cover across, Sigma Lions outside centre Mannie Rass keeps drifting to open up the hole:

Similarly, Adams’ first try owed much to a convincing decoy run from Farrell at the tail of a lineout:

Everything happens quickly…

Farrell decoy for Josh Adams

…but it is the slight hesitation of Vincent Tshituka, here stepping off his left foot to cover Farrell, that is crucial:

Russell and Farrell created a great deal during their hour on the pitch together. However, given they had been in camp for just a fortnight together, there were understandably clunky moments.

When it did not work

Farrell turns 30 in September. Barring a dramatic transformation, he will never be a dynamic line-runner capable of generating momentum from a standing start. In two backline mix-ups, that was obvious.

Here, on the second phase following a first-half lineout, Russell receives the ball from Price:

Russell appears to look up to gauge the position of the Sigma Lions’ openside wing, Jamba Ulengo. It looks as though he is weighing up a kick-pass as Farrell arrives in shot:

With this little delay, though, Farrell’s running line cuts off the rest of the backline. Russell drops off a short pass, which cannot have been in the script. Farrell takes contact and spills:

Five minutes later, Farrell finds himself on a different wavelength to Price following a lineout drive. In this instance, it looks as though Farrell was expecting Price to play an earlier pass behind him to either Russell or Harris:

Price to Farrell fail

Farrell should have made more of this pass, even under pressure from Odendaal, but the incident indicates how Gatland may need Duhan van der Merwe to storm off one wing if he returns to the Russell-Farrell enterprise.

Of course Harris – or Robbie Henshaw – could be also used more frequently in these tight exchanges. Looking to Farrell as a keynote carrier against South Africa does not seem to be a recipe for success.

Otherwise, there were defensive wobbles. Farrell missed a one-on-one tackle on Francke Horn in the build-up to the Sigma Lions’ first try. Russell’s channel was punctured – albeit with a possible obstruction – prior to the hosts’ second.

One or two misjudged kicks from Russell invited pressure on his team, too. Gatland will also have to weigh up the risk of giving the playmaking pair more time to gel. Because the rewards will be there.

Why it could be worth another go

This may turn out to be the Lions’ easiest game in South Africa, but they still passed a half-century and could have piled up even more points. In a Test match context, the Lions will want to impart width because South Africa’s aggressive defence can be outflanked.

Despite some teething problems, Russell and Farrell demonstrated that they will be able to do that. Here, Price begins at the front of a lineout with Russell in the scrum-half slot. The former backs away as George throws…

…and receives Hill’s transfer:

Watson barrels over the gain-line, supported by Farrell. On the next phase, Russell sends the ball across Harris to Hogg. With the Lions’ entire back three, including a roaming Adams, Maxwane’s tackle is very important:

Russell to Hogg

Later, Harris does carry from another overthrown lineout:

On the next phase, Farrell pulls a pass behind Faletau to Russell:

Rass is fixed and Adams circles around:

Viljoen has to shoot up from full-back with Hogg and Rees-Zammit threatening, and things would have been interesting if Adams’ pass had not drifted forward:

In another Lions attack before half-time, Russell feeds Farrell behind a run from Harris that fixes both Jordan Hendrikse and Odendaal. Farrell arcs towards Maxwane…

…and attempts to slide through a grubber for Rees-Zammit to chase as Viljoen joins the front line. Only Maxwane’s slide tackle saves the Sigma Lions:

Finally, to another line-break in the second half. First, Russell feeds Watson…

…who cuts back inside. Beyond him, Farrell doubles back…

…before running a flat line to fix Ulengo on the next phase. Russell can feed Harris…

…who sends Adams clear:

Jamie George was unfortunate not to score from a kick ahead.

If Saturday reinforced anything about this Lions tour, it is that exceptional players will miss out on Test selection – something that comes into sharp focus when you ponder the midfield.

Russell possesses a rare inventory of ways to break down a defence. His quarterback-style guidance of the Lions attack play did not seem blunted by backline colleagues on Saturday.

Farrell kicked all eight conversions and completed 14 tackles, the most of anyone on the field except Hamish Watson. He forced a counter-rucking turnover with the help of Harris and Price. His voice echoed around the stadium while the Sigma Lions were in possession, shouts of “Whack him! Whack him!” geeing up teammates and aiding a settling side.

It was interesting that Farrell was name-checked in Hogg’s post-match interview as a leader that the full-back had leant on as captain. Watch Farrell here, bolting in to congratulate Watson and Wyn Jones for winning a turnover:

Farrell celebrates turnover

Gatland clearly wants to give England’s skipper every chance to prove his form and feature against the Springboks. But there will have to be compromises if Farrell is to be picked. Select him at fly-half, and one of Russell or Biggar will not make the match-day 23.

Shifting him to inside centre would probably require two of Aki, Harris or Henshaw to be among the replacements at best, with brawny wings carrying in the tight exchanges to balance the backline. The back row may be affected as well.

Excruciatingly hard calls await Gatland. Paradoxically, a promising start for the Russell-Farrell partnership has only made them tougher.