Selection for the Lions was a message from head coach Warren Gatland to Finn Russell in that they have the confidence he can be the test stand-off against South Africa.
Many thought the pragmatic head coach of the British and Irish Lions team on their last two tours would again go for Ireland’s Jonny Sexton, the starting 10 in five of the last six tests, but now aged 35.
However Gatland said he had noted Russell’s more balanced playing style and thought the often-maverick Scotland stand-off needed the message that the Lions coaching team trusted in him.
‘He’s got so much more of a balanced game now’
“We’ve got differences in our 10s and that’s important,” said Gatland, who also picked Wales’ Dan Biggar and England’s Owen Farrell.
“I thought the best game Finn played in the 6N was the game against France. What impressed me was his game management and the way he controlled the game. He took them on with ball in hand when there were opportunities but also using his kicking game to turn them and put them under pressure.
“I think he’s got so much more of a balanced game now, in terms of when to run, when to turn teams around, when to kick.”
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But Gatland said he felt the message to Russell was one he had to make specifically.
‘I wanted to send a message particularly to Finn’
“For me, we understand there’s real quality 10s out there and I wanted to send a message particularly to Finn that we back him, we have the confidence in him to put pressure on teams and put his hand up for test selection.
“I thought it’s an important message to deliver to someone like Finn. (We’re) saying to the 10s selected that we trust you, we back you.
“We’re going to pick from the start, because you’re so important to us. It’s such a pivotal role, and confidence and self-belief is important for me.”
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In contrast, they had to look at the veteran Sexton and consider whether he would be available for the whole tour, he continued.
‘It was looking at durability’
“I understand about Jonny and how disappointed he may be,” he continued. “He’s a player of the highest quality, but when it came down to it, it was looking at durability.
“It wasn’t about concussions, it was how tough South Africa was going to be from that point of view.
“The last time Jonny played three consecutive weekends in a row was in 2018.”
Gatland also paid tribute to props Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson. “They’ve both really come on and Scotland probably came out the best of all the Six Nations at scrum-time.”
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‘He deserves this selection’
As for Hamish Watson, it was all about making a point of difference, he said.
“He’s Six Nations Player of the Year so he has to be pretty good,” he said. “We know he’s physical, but he’s going to have to be over the ball and win turnovers. That’s vital and Hamish and the other loose forwards are going to need a point of difference.
“We know how brave Hamish is, we know he can carry, and the variation in terms of his offload game. He deserves this selection. He’s been a handful for people to deal with and important part of the Scottish team.”
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As for the perception that he hadn’t given Scots a fair crack of the whip before this squad announcement, Gatland said it had never been about national jerseys.
“You don’t look at what nations they come from. You probably only see that once you’ve picked the squad,” he said.
“The pleasing thing for me is (Scotland) in the last couple of Six Nations, those two wins away from home against England and France this year, put a lot of players into contention.
“It wasn’t about (assistants) Gregor (Townsend) and Steve (Tandy) pushing Scottish players. It was about picking players who can do a job for us.
‘The closest Six Nations I’ve seen’
“I’m actually delighted because it was the closest Six Nations I’ve seen. There were five teams capable of beating each other on any day. I’ve got to make sure I pick the best players for the British and Irish Lions squad, not based on where they come from.”
In the end, despite their poor Six Nations this year, England have the most tourists with 11. Gatland said he recognised players’ achievements in reaching the World Cup Final and winning the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup in 2020.
But as well as Sexton, there are some notables who missed out. Billy Vunipola, Henry Slade and Jonny May for England, James Ryan for Gary Ringrose from Ireland, and a Gatland favourite in Wales’ Jonathan Davies, who played in the tests on the last two Lions tours.
Other Scots who can consider themselves unlucky are Jamie Ritchie, who must have been close in the back row, and Jonny Gray.