WARREN Gatland has challenged Finn Russell to make the Lions No10 Test jersey his own during this summer’s tour to South Africa. Speaking immediately after naming eight Scots in his 37-man squad – the biggest contingent on a Lions tour in 32 years – the head coach paid tribute to the stand-off’s growing maturity, which earned him selection ahead of the vastly experienced Irishman Johnny Sexton. 

Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe, Chris Harris, Ali Price, Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson are the other Scots selected. The only previous tour to have more Scots involved was when nine – including captain Finlay Calder – went to Australia in 1989. There was also eight on the tour to New Zealand in 1983. 

“I thought the best game Finn played in the Six Nations was against France, and what impressed me was his game management – the way he controlled the game, turned France around to put them under pressure, and then moved the ball when the opportunities came,” said Gatland. “He’s got so much more of a balanced game now in terms of when to run and when to turn teams around with a kick. 

“I wanted to send a message, especially to Finn, that we back him, and we have confidence in him to put pressure on other teams and put his hand up for the Test side. I thought that was a really good message for me to be able to deliver to someone like Finn.” 

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Sexton has been starting stand-off in five out of the six Tests played during the two previous tours Gatland has been in charge of and came off the bench in the one he didn’t start. Gatland admitted that he had a heavy heart leaving the Irishman out but feared the 35-year-old might struggle to last the duration of what is expected to a physically and mentally gruelling expedition. 

“The last time Johnny played three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018 and he has had a number of different injuries,” explained the coach. “I was concerned about taking him and he couldn’t play games or make it through the tour meaning we had to call someone up – in such an important position we wanted to get it right and get that message right. 

“We had three, four or five quality 10s to pick from, and I just wanted to send a message to the guys that we did pick that we have complete confidence and faith in them to do the job. 

“We understand about Johnny and how disappointed he may be. What a player he is – but it came down to the physicality – and it wasn’t anything about concussion, I can promise you – but looking at durability and how tough South Africa is going to be from that point of view.” 

Gatland – who picked only two Scots in his initial squads for the 2013 and 2017 tours – has been accused by frustrated supporters from north of the border of having an anti-Scottish bias, but the 57-year-old argued that he has always selected on merit, insisting that this bumper crop was down to the national team’s improved performances during the last two seasons. 

He also dismissed the suggestion that having Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and defence coach Steve Tandy in his management team had been a factor. 

“When you pick a Lions squad, you don’t look at what nations the players come from – you probably look at that afterwards,” he insisted. “I was involved as an assistant coach in 2009 when Ian McGeechan – who is a Scottish rugby legend – was the head coach and I think we had two Scots on that tour. 

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“The pleasing thing for me is that in the last Six Nations, those two wins away from home against England and France put a lot of Scottish players into contention, so it wasn’t about them [Townend and Tandy] pushing the Scottish players, it was about picking people we thought could do the job for us.” 

Gatland added that the biggest challenge in selection had been finding the right blend to play a positive brand of rugby whilst still being able to match the ferocious power expected from the world champion Springboks. 

“I think South Africa have gone back to their DNA – their mentality is about winning that physical battle,” he said. “Obviously, we want to play some really good rugby, but we are also going to have to roll our sleeves up and get in the trenches to battle it out with them. It’s going to be tough – it is going to be brutal at times.” 

And selecting characters who will thrive whilst trapped in a bubble environment for nine weeks was also crucial. “It is important for me that we get things right in terms of the well-being and mental health of the players,” Gatland added. “The rugby is going to be the easy part, if we get the other stuff right then well have a chance when we get on the field. 

“This is the toughest squad I’ve ever had to try and get right.”