Finn Russell said last night that he was delighted to finish off this summer’s Lions tour to South Africa on the park after five weeks watching from side-lines due to an Achilles tear, but added that he couldn’t shake the sense of frustration that he had limited opportunity to make an impact on the three match Test series against the world champions.
The maverick stand-off came off the bench in the 11th minute to replace the injured Dan Biggar in yesterday’s series decider against the Springboks and brought a new dimension to the Lions’ attack play, but he couldn’t quite inspire a historic win for the tourists.
“The boys will take a lot of pride from that performance, we played really well but we just didn’t manage to get the win so we’re going to be hurting,” said Russell.
“It has been a bit of a frustrating tour for me, I tore my Achilles at the start but tried to get on with it, so the first couple of games maybe weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, but I played quite well tonight. I had two weeks training, so I was ready for it.
“It was just good to go out there and get some good game time in the red jersey, and I loved every minute of it until the final whistle went,” he added. “The way I play is slightly different and I’ve been watching previous games thinking that I could have done one or two things slightly differently and we might have had different outcomes in the ‘A’ game and the second Test.
“But I am happy that I got a chance tonight to show the style of rugby that I would have played against South Africa. I just went on knowing that we had to move them around a little bit and actually play some expansive rugby. I played my style of rugby and I think that showed in my performance tonight.”
Meanwhile, Lions head coach Warren Gatland said he was generally pleased with Russell’s performance but also highlighted a couple of errors he believes were costly to the team’s chances of beating the world champions.
“We talked about moving the ball and the ball went through his hands a lot, which was good,” said the New Zealander. “He’ll be disappointed that he’s dropped a ball in the air which he would probably normally take. He was a bit unlucky when he gave away a high tackle penalty against Cheslin Kolbe, and the left-foot kick down the middle of the park wasn’t one of his best moments.
“But he created some stuff and for someone who hasn’t played a lot of rugby, I thought he was excellent.”
Gatland added that Russell was by no means the only Lions player to have made costly mistakes.
“When you’re playing the world champions you know it’s going to be really tight contest – it’s going to be a bounce of a ball or a referee decision or something like that,” he added. “We were held up over the line then we were penalised at a scrum, which was a little bit unlucky when you’re five metres out from their line.
“The boys gave it 100 per cent and from a coaching point of view you can’t ask for more than that.”
The match ended in heartache for the tourists when replacement stand-off Morne Steyn kicked a late penalty to snatch a dramatic 19-16 win, 12 years on from doing the same thing in the last series between the Lions and South Afria.
“It’s a bit of déjà vu, isn’t it?” reflected Gatland, who was an assistant coach on that 2009 tour. “The penalty count was 15-12 against us and at this level it’s so important. Your aim is to keep your penalties under 10, and if you can do that it makes a significant difference.
“There were big moments like the two-on-one with Liam Williams and Josh Adams, when he should have given the pass, probably. You get one or two chances at this level and you’ve got to make the most of it. You’ve got to be clinical when they come around.
“Probably the most disappointing part of the game was the first 10 minutes of the second half when we just got pinned in our half a little bit then it took us a while to start getting some momentum.”