Finn Russell’s starting debut for the British & Irish Lions was notable for the absence of the anticipated pyrotechnics display, writes ZELIM NEL.
The series kicked off with a performance against South Africa’s Lions that can best be described as satisfactory – wing Josh Adams scored four of the tourists’ eight tries and they conceded two touchdowns in a 56-14 win that ranks third for margin in the team’s seven tour-opening victories of the professional era.
The scoreline was much more impressive than the performance. Some may say it’s debatable how much more could have been expected from a team acclimating to the Highveld while playing together for just the second time, but there was little in the performance that showcased the vast difference in quality of the two lineups.
Remember, the local team was devoid of players who had made a business trip to the 2019 Rugby World Cup while the visiting side was loaded with the stalwarts of the final two rounds of the playoffs in Japan.
Four tries is a superb day at the office for any winger but Adams wasn’t leaving a trail of beaten defenders in his wake – he rounded off movements that were highly effective because the home team were hooked by strike plays and otherwise committed all resources to defending half the width of the field.
The tourists were sufficiently slick to run the edge or kick to space for their tries with Scotland centre Chris Harris among the outside backs afforded the time to paint a picture before making a decision and executing.
Russell’s second call-up to the Lions, after making two appearances off the bench in 2017, was hailed as just reward for a player that had sparked Scotland’s renaissance under Gregor Townsend. But the 28-year-old, regarded by some as one of the world’s best attacking flyhalves, was quite forgettable in what was a golden opportunity to impress coach Warren Gatland.
While Russell had a hand in the movements that led to many of the tries, and he did float a trademark cross-kick to a completely unmarked Adams for a score, he did not flay the hosts with his boot or materialise as a running threat and his decision-making and execution was erratic. Jamba Ulengo came agonisingly close to picking off a forced cross-kick for what would have been an interesting foot race against Adams.
Similarly, fullback Stuart Hogg was modest in his contributions while man-of-the-match Hamish Watson mixed an energetic effort with having the ball knocked out of his hands by Morne van den Berg, the local backup scrumhalf snuffing out a promising linebreak by the Scotland fetcher.
Watson was partly responsible for an attacking breakdown that was ambushed on more than one occasion and a case can be made for transferring Watson’s award to Vincent Tshituka, who clearly wasn’t there to ask for autographs.
The visiting Lions were forced to defend for much of the first quarter and, though they were commendably patient and impenetrable, the hosts were able to retain possession and build a long series in the red zone. Such slow poison will be more expensive against the Springboks.
Hooker PJ Botha and tighthead Ruan Dreyer were not unduly troubled by a Lions scrum that featured England teammates Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler, both of whom had started the World Cup final. And Watson was the only touring forward to score a try as the visitors made little impression at maul time and in the trenches.
Criticism may seem harsh after the British & Irish Lions cleared the ring rust with a 40-point margin in this high-scoring win, but it’s worth remembering that the Pumas beat the Joburg Lions 39-10 in a Currie Cup match in Nelspruit two weeks ago.
Like the Springboks, the touring Lions are in a race for continuity before the Test series commences. They’ll have to pick up considerable speed against the Sharks in Match 2.