Winning a series in South Africa is hard at the best of times, never mind during a pandemic. For a British & Irish Lions side hurtling towards a Test series like skydivers yet to locate their ripcords, it is all about making calm, correct decisions under pressure. Find a clever tactical balance and – whoosh – up goes the canopy and everything will be fine.
Among the most crucial judgments Warren Gatland and his co-pilots must make is their ideal 10-12 combination. It goes without saying that a Lions stand-off is a pivotal individual around whom much revolves, particularly given the strength, size and reputation of the current Springbok forwards. No one is going to steamroller this lot which makes the identification of alternative ways to try and wrongfoot them absolutely vital.
If anyone has the skills to make that kind of difference it is unquestionably Finn Russell, which makes his selection for the opening weekend fixture in South Africa all the more fascinating. Remember what Gatland said back at the start of May when he named his squad? “I just want to send a message, particularly to Finn that we back him and we have confidence in him to put pressure on the other 10s and put his hand up for the Test side. We have got differences with our 10s and I think that’s important.”
With Dan Biggar having had a cortisone injection in a knee – no drama say the management but not ideal for one of the team’s main goal kickers – it makes this weekend’s 10-12 pairing of Russell and Owen Farrell instructive. Will it be a marriage made in rugby heaven? Both instinctively like to run the show: essentially that is why they have been picked. Farrell has an excellent relationship with George Ford in an England context but the memory still lingers of his exasperated reaction to Danny Cipriani’s kick ahead which, seconds later, created Jonny May’s winning try for England against South Africa in Cape Town in 2018.
Occasionally a little creative tension can be a good thing. If every single rugby player thought the same way it would the dullest of grey games. No one, regardless, could ever doubt Farrell’s competitive attributes. But if Russell is going to daub great abstract splashes of Kandinsky-style colour on the Lions’ largely blank canvas, he does not really want his nearest teammate urging him simply to slap on another coat of magnolia instead. Because, as Gatland has already made clear, the bog standard will not be sufficient to beat the world champions.
By opting for Stuart Hogg as his captain for this fixture rather than Farrell, Gatland has also sent a quiet message that high office with England, fifth in this year’s Six Nations, is not necessarily going to guarantee a starting Lions Test place. A look at the stats is also instructive. When Farrell starts at centre for England, as he has now done 43 times, his side have a 79% winning ratio. When he starts at No 10, which he has done on 38 occasions, that figure drops to below 63%.
In 11 career Tests against South Africa, meanwhile, his record reads three wins, one draw and seven losses. Biggar, by contrast, has come up against the Springboks eight times and has a 50% success rate. Russell has faced the Boks just once for Scotland in a narrow 26-20 loss at Murrayfield three years ago but, as Gatland observed this week, he is a more rounded player nowadays.
“He’s matured amazingly in the last few years in terms of his game management and the way he controls the game,” Gatland said. “We know what flair he has from an attacking perspective, but it’s also those deft attacking kicks he’s able to bring to his game. I thought against France the way he managed that game was outstanding.”
A striking game against the Lions in which he mixes the basics with the occasional bit of magic and a place in the Test match 23, therefore, is well within his compass. Initially it may have to be from the bench but who better to lift the tempo and change the mood music than Russell against a slightly weary defence? To enable that, though, Farrell will either have to beat Robbie Henshaw, currently nursing a sore hamstring, and Bundee Aki to the starting No 12 jersey or give the management little choice but to start him at 10.
There is also the small matter of goal kicking. Who would you back to land a crucial touchline goal on a potentially wet, stormy night in the Western Cape? On this tour there is no Leigh Halfpenny to take the strain; a reliable kicker simply has to start. Neil Jenkins has confirmed Farrell will take the first kick at goal this weekend but there was a case for inviting Russell to take the first few pot shots and gain an early sense of how his marksmanship measures up to his peers.
If the latter has a stormer and he and Farrell dovetail nicely, though, what then? At the very least it will necessitate an instant midweek response from Biggar, thus helping to elevate standards all round. Already the squad has been buoyed by suggestions the injured Alun Wyn Jones may yet be fit enough to rejoin them before the end of the series. What if they also possess three No 10s working like skydivers in tandem, unselfishly aiming for the same collective goal? It could be the difference between the 2021 Lions adventure soaring or plummeting.