Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


The Scottish Eight and the Lions’ Test 23: Backs’ Progress Report

Gregor Townsend and Warren Gatland
2021 British & Irish Lions Tour To South Africa British & Irish Lions Gym Session and Squad Training, South Africa 1/7/2021 Mandatory credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

With just two warm-up matches remaining here’s one last chance to take a look at the Test series’ selection credentials of the Scottish backs in the Lions’ squad. (A look at the forwards can be found here.)

Ali Price

Keys to a Test series’ squad place – scrum half fundamentals, box kicking, all-round work in attack and defence

Ali’s service from scrum half has been comfortably the best of all three candidates on tour. That’s a continuation from this season’s Six Nations and shouldn’t come as any surprise. What has been particularly encouraging about his performances so far for the Lions has been the control and range on his kicking. He has the most kicks recovered among the half backs. In addition, when exiting the 22 – and not going for contestable ball – he has found excellent distance with his touch finders.

If there is one work on it will be around his defence and tackles missed. Better positioning as the covering defender should help – he has shown for Scotland he is willing to put his body on the line. A potentially try-saving ruck turnover against the Sharks also demonstrated his ability to get involved when playing without the ball.

Ali has done pretty much everything that could be expected of him so far. In particular, his box kicking was outstanding in his start against the Sigma Lions. The move to make Conor Murray captain has possibly closed off a route to a start in the first Test but the Warrriors’ scrum half has continued to demonstrate that he is a more complete number 9 than Gareth Davies – the man he’s battling for the 21 shirt.

As it stands – Test series’ bench behind Lions’ skipper Murray

Finn Russell

Keys to a Test series’ squad place – being Finn, kicking, decision-making

Finn has been Finn so far on tour. His passing to bring his forwards and backs into the game was typically superb. It’s all done in such nonchalant fashion it’s easy to take for granted but he keeps going to the line, taking hits, getting back in the line and going again for the next phase. Most of the backs have played more than Russell but he has averaged more passes per minutes than anyone bar the three scrum halves.

It’s hard to know if Finn’s performances on tour have shifted the dial on how Warren Gatland views him. Certainly the post-match interview with the head coach following the Sigma Lions brought only mention of a few mistakes (granted not every kick was perfect but his invention continually asked different questions of the defence) and no positives when the stand off’s name was brought up. The Russell-Farrell axis also wasn’t an instant hit and that was the most likely route to a Test place for the maverick playmaker.

Russell’s absence from the remaining warmup games with an Achilles issue might just kill off any lingering hopes of him making the 23 for the first Test.

As it stands – just missing out

Chris Harris

Keys to a Test series’ squad place – defence, partnership with Robbie Henshaw

In contrast to Finn Russell, Owen Farrell not being 100% up to speed probably increase the chances of Chris winning a Test match start at 13. A run out in tandem with Robbie Henshaw would have been the perfect way to establish the credentials of this as the strongest centre pairing but the Irishman’s hamstring issue not only put paid that lineup in the second game against the Sharks but also pushed Harris into a far less familiar inside centre role.

Unsurprisingly the Gloucester player’s defensive work has been excellent so far on tour with some important tackles and good contributions at the breakdown. He even threw in the bonus of some lovely attacking play and an assist with the boot for Louis Rees-Zammit’s try against the Sigma Lions that was Russell-esque in its execution.

There looks to be a big call to be made as to who will partner Henshaw in the midfield. Elliot Daly has been in scintillating form in attack but 63% tackle completion is more than a little bit ropey. How much influence will Toony have as this starts to very much look like the Huw Jones / Chris Harris choice he has been making for Scotland for the last two years! The wild card here is Farrell who can probably bridge the gap between the attack / defence options by starting at 12 with Henshaw moving out to 13. His form has been mixed on tour but he does of course have plenty of credit in the bank.

As it stands – losing out on a bench spot to the greater flexibility of Elliot Daly

Duhan van der Merwe

Keys to a Test series’ squad place – getting involved off his wing, power game, can he kick it?

Big Duhan could well be left to wonder what might have been. With Anthony Watson nursing a slight strain one of the starting wingers from the Japan game had to double up against the Sigma Lions. Josh Adams got the nod rather than van der Merwe – and the Welshman went on to bag four tries. Sometimes these things can come down to luck and timing, particularly for wingers who are the most reliant on how the rest of the team is playing.

Against Japan, the game so far that has come closest to a Test match intensity, Duhan was frequently off his wing, trailing the scrum half and looking for work off breakdowns. That hasn’t really been required as much in the romps against the South African provincial sides where there have been acres of space out wide.

He’s been typically hard to put down and is miles out in front for defenders beaten as well as topping the squad stats for metres per carry. There was a even a solitary sighting of that elusive kicking game…All in all he has proved he was well worth his place in the tour party and can’t be far away from facing South Africa.

As it stands – a baw hair away from a Test place in an incredibly high quality field

Stuart Hogg

Keys to a Test series’ squad place – distribution, kicking, leadership

Hoggy got his tour underway against the Sigma Lions by pouching two catches that if they had been taken by Liam Williams or Dan Biggar would have had the commentators and pundits in raptures. His attacking opportunities were limited but he looked sharp whenever he did have ball in hand and his effort to put in a try-saving tackle and then win the ball back was immense.

He passed the ball well, although this is something that will only be really key if Owen Farrell doesn’t make the starting Test lineup and Hoggy needs to step up as the second distributor. There was one booming kick but plenty more in the locker, while as the first Scot to captain the Lions since 2005 he lead the troops well, was a vocal presence when required and communicated effectively with the ref. Missing out on three games in a row is unfortunate but he should be sharp and raring to go for the Saturday before the first Test.

As it stands – Test series’ starter

Predicted backs for the first Test:

11. Watson or Williams
15. HOGG

22. DALY
23. Watson or Williams

5 Responses

  1. More great work, Kevin. Thanks.

    Loving the stats and (mostly) agree with your reasoning. I’m just not sure what Watson has done to warrant a test place over Irn Du. As it stands I’d have DVDM at 11 and Williams at 23 to cover FB and wing.

    1. Cheers! My thinking is that Gatland will want a wing / full back to cover when Hoggy is doing Hoggy things rather than 2 specialist wings (granted Adams can play 15 in extremis but he’s not a dual position specialist like Watson and Williams).

      Watson has been outstanding for England for a number of years (and the Lions in 2017). Even during their rotten Six Nations this season he was class. He’s been unlucky to miss out on significant game time so far on tour but he had very little to prove to the coaches who already know exactly what he can bring to the table. I think as a wing / full back Gatland (and Toony) will prefer him to full back / wing Williams and they’ll prefer Williams on the bench to cover Hogg and Watson rather than DVDM who most effectively covers Adams.

  2. Purely based on the games so far, VDM is ahead of Watson by some distance.
    Watson has only had 1 game to be fair, but didn’t do much until the Sharks were out on their feet.

    There is more of an argument for Williams before him, but I would rather see a dedicated winger.

    Farrell at 12 is just depressing to think about.

    I’m not against “credit in the bank” but form should be by far the more important factor.

    1. No question, purely on the warm-up matches DVDM is miles ahead of everyone bar Adams. The opposition has been so poor though that I think it has to temper slightly the value coaches will have taken from assessing form in these games. Players could certainly play themselves out of contention but it would take something spectacular to move outsiders ahead of established candidates.

      I’m not a Farrell fan but there are a lot of reasons why coaches and teammates all rate him so highly.

      Gatland is by nature a conservative coach – but that’s really due to the nature of Test rugby at the very top level. Toony himself has moved toward this approach in the last couple of years and it has benefited Scotland. I could be miles off but I think they will go with steady, consistent players who will close South Africa down and who have plenty of big game experience.

      1. All good points, and I agree test matches are a different kettle of fish. Having said that, Japan are a good test side and VDM stood out against them as well.

        My main worry with Farrell so far is he seems to struggle to adapt to unfamiliar players/styles around him – which might be a big issue with the limited games this tour.

        Hopefully the end result of selections will be a mix of Gatland’s conservative style and Townsends more attacking leanings.

        The fact that we are having serious discussions on test spots for nearly all the Scottish players is a big victory in itself and will do a lot to get rid of some of the residual (unmerited in recent years)derision we get from certain groups.

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