Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and after seeing his 70-minute cameo for the British and Irish Lions in their third Test defeat to South Africa, many wish Finn Russell made his series debut sooner.
The Scotland fly-half earned his Lions Test bow as an early replacement for Dan Biggar after the Wales 10 was injured just 10 minutes into the tour decider, and his impact was substantial.
Those 70 minutes showcased some of the best Lions play fans had witnessed across the tour, and ex-Wales centre Jamie Roberts has been forthcoming in his praise of the Racing 92 playmaker.
During a recent appearance on the RugbyPass Offload podcast, the two-time Lions tourist gushed: "I love the freedom he (Russell) plays with. He's a classic anti-structure player. I'm sure he can play to structure but he plays what he sees and very rarely do we have outside-halves at Test level doing that.
"Everything is quite a rigid game plan, and this guy comes on, his first action as the defence has come high is a little kick pass – which we haven't seen the whole Lions series.
"Having the confidence to do that and back his skillset was pretty special, when the stakes are that high.”
It ultimately proved futile as Morne Steyn kicked a late penalty for the hosts to seal a 19-16 win on the day and a 2-1 series comeback for South Africa after they had lost the opening Test.
England captain Owen Farrell played deputy to Biggar across the first two Tests while Russell was still recovering from an achilles injury he suffered earlier on in the tour.
The change may not have paved the way to the win he sought, but coach Warren Gatland ’s decision to promote the Scot to his bench for the decider in a way felt justified.
Roberts—who is contracted with the Dragons in Newport until 2022—agreed with co-guest Jean de Villiers that it actually helped Russell to enter the game as a replacement: “The amount of momentum he helped create – he caused the Boks huge problems.
"The Lions have hardly made any metres against the Boks in those first two Tests. I'd hate to know how many carrying metres they made because we just couldn't get our big runners into the game.
"Finn Russell comes on and within one passage of play they make more metres moving forward because he attacks the line and is a huge running threat.
“I don’t know about you, Jean, but I was watching it thinking ‘Geez, South Africa are on the ropes here. This could be three, four tries, y’know?’”
Wales talisman Biggar has already confirmed the defeat against South Africa will be his last tour as a Lion, removing at least one of the team’s top stars for the trip to Australia in 2025.
Russell will be one of this year’s contingent hopeful of keeping his place on the plane, while there are a string of rising prospects earning attention as potential tourists Down Under.
Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith was called into Gatland’s squad as injury cover for Russell and is expected to travel with the team again in four years, at which point the latter will be 32.
That may give Scotland’s swashbuckler just enough time to squeeze in one more flight to the southern hemisphere, though this time he’ll be hoping for more than 70 minutes of Test rugby.
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