The Scottish Eight and the Lions’ Test 23: Russell and Harris

Stand off

Last Test series’ minutes at stand off for a Scot – Gregor Townsend in 1997

There has been less highlight reel razzle dazzle of late from Finn Russell for Scotland but there has also been much more solidity and a varied kicking game that would test even the very best defences in world rugby. Moving to Racing 92 has seen an already hard-working player develop his game to another level. Has this been enough to turn him into someone that will fit the mould in a Warren Gatland coached lineup?

A shortage of game time recently (after being banned following the end of the Six Nations), allied to Dan Biggar’s excellent form, have left Finn with work to do on tour. Owen Farrell’s versatility will almost certainly see him in the starting line-up at 12 or on the bench where he can cover both fly half and centre. That means it’s possible the stand off slot is a straight fight between Russell and Biggar, therefore the Scot has to win that shirt with his actions on the pitch in South Africa.

Part of that will come from the traditional Finn brilliance, unlocking defences with his range of passing off either hand. He will also put his body on the line in attack (taking the ball to the line even in the teeth of the most ferocious linespeed) and defence (where his commitment is often underrated).

As the Lions’ eligible player with the most metres kicking from hand during the recent Six Nations, if he does make it onto the pitch he will only extend the Test side’s options in that area. The sheer variety of his kicking is also the best any of the Lions’ backs has to offer. There’s almost no question that at some point on the tour he will pull off a sensational try assist with the boot. Will it be for the Test side though?

Ultimately, Finn can pretty much do it all and it comes down to decision-making as to when (or even if) to do it. He has to be making the right choices at the right time – particularly around when it’s on to go for it in attack – on almost every single occasion if he is to win the trust of the whole of the Lions’ coaching staff and ease himself ahead of the other contenders for the 10 jersey.

What are the chances? Probably starts the tour in third place in a three way battle – but his skillset is so unique he has the capability push himself into the reckoning with his performances in the warm-ups.

Centre

Last Test series’ minutes at centre for a Scot – Scott Hastings in 1989

As Scotland’s defensive leader, Chris Harris has brought organisation and solidity to the dark blues’ backline. He has been ever present in the Scottish 23 since the final warm-up game ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Coaches including Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy have shown time and time again how much they value the consistency and reassuring presence of Harris in the line-up.

Although Harris will be aiming for the number 13 shirt his main competition is most likely to come from two players who are fighting to play at inside centre. Robbie Henshaw is certain to start – the only question is in which position in midfield? If Henshaw plays at 12 then Harris probably has the edge over Elliot Daly right now to slot in at 13. If Farrell is seen as indispensable – or Bundee Aki’s muscular carrying and defence is required at inside centre – then Henshaw moves out one spot and Harris can’t crack the starting line-up. How he goes v Farrell/Aki is the acid test.

A Henshaw / Harris partnership will look to shut the door on South Africa’s attack in midfield. From Harris’s point of view he needs to show early on he can integrate with one of the few certainties for a Lions’ starting shirt. Starting outside Henshaw in the match against Japan at Murrayfield would be the ideal opportunity.

It’s likely to be 13 or bust for Harris as well. He has taken the number 23 shirt himself for Scotland thanks to his ability to cover wing as well as centre. If it comes down to a shootout for a centre/back 3 to cover the bench spot then Elliot Daly’s even greater versatility (plus Chris’s shortage of recent game time out wide) is likely to see the Saracens’ man edge out Gloucester’s Scot.

What are the chances? It’s a little bit out of his hands as it depends on how Henshaw is deployed but if Harris can show he can form a brick wall partnership with the Irish centre then there might just be an opportunity.

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out the most obscure Scottish rugby related stat he can put out on Twitter.
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4 comments on “The Scottish Eight and the Lions’ Test 23: Russell and Harris

  1. FF on

    I feel like Russell and Harris’ fortunes are probably in conflict. Russell’s best chance of a starting place is alongside Farrell at 12, as he is a less reliable kicker than Gatland will want. If Farrell plays 12, Henshaw is a stick on at 13.

    If Gatland chooses two big lumps in midfield Russell isn’t going to start or make the bench IMO.

    I think Gatland and Toonie might start with Farrell at 12 in mind, in a straight shoot out between Russell and Biggar Russell can win. But they have to gel quickly otherwise the experiment won’t last to the first test.

    • Scotty on

      I saw a Lions tweet recently asking for people’s midfield and the overwhelming majority went for Russel Henshaw and Harris. Admittedly this is fans’ opinions and unlikely to be the case but I thought it was interesting that even a lot of non Scots were calling for this.

      Due to their completely different styles I think it would take years to have Russell and Farrell gelling together so just can’t see it. I think the odds on must be Biggar Henshaw Harris with Farrell and Daly on the bench combined able to cover 10-15 well.

      If Farrell isn’t clicking in the warm up games Russell could steal his bench spot though.

      • FF on

        More often than not, Farrell is 12 inside Ford who isn’t a million miles from Russell in style.

        I think Russell has played a lot of his best test rugby with a 12 like Horne who can play as an extra distributor and kicker. Personally I think Farrell would take. Lot of pressure off Russell and they’d gel really well. Farrell is typecast as conservative FH but he’s no Rob Andrew and has played for Saracens and England when they’ve been free-scoring.

      • Scotty on

        Watch the England game v South Africa when Cipriani is at 10 and Farrell 12. England are camped in their 22 and Cipriani puts in a kick which turns into a try to win the match. In the replays of it you can see Farrell screaming at Cipriani not to do it as he is playing instinctively and not to the game plan…imagine his reaction when Russell pulled out some of his tricks! Despite winning the game for them, Cipriani never played for England again…

        I agree that Russell plays well with another distributer at 12 but I think Farrell is far too regimented and game plan orientated to be paired with Russell. You see Ford stick to the game plan with England and almost have to go his instincts to kick the ball all the time.

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