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Gatland explains his 'no English' Lions XV and addresses Finn Russell injury scare

By Liam Heagney

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Warren Gatland has spoken about the logic behind his team selection for the opening match of the 2021 Lions tour, explaining the emphasis was on picking players who were with him in Jersey for the training week that began on June 14 and adding that he wanted to pick some Scottish players as the match against Japan is being played in Edinburgh this Saturday. 

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The breakdown of his no English XV to face the Japanese is six Irish, five Welsh – including tour skipper Alun Wyn Jones – and four Scots, with his replacements headed up by four English backed by two Welsh and one each from Scotland and Ireland. 

Only two players who were not on the Channel Islands last week have got into the matchday 23, Saracens duo Jamie George and Owen Farrell. George was pressed straight into the selection plans as the Lions have only one other hooker available, the starting Ken Owens, as Luke Cowan-Dickie is one of four Lions picks who will be involved with Exeter in next Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final versus Harlequins in London.    

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Meanwhile, Farrell was selected due to the cautious approach Gatland is taking with Finn Russell whom he revealed has an injury but has been training since he linked up with the squad in recent days following the completion of his club season with Racing after their elimination from the Top 14 title race at the semi-final stage. “We have only got two hookers so we are a bit limited with Jamie coming on the bench,” said Gatland at his Tuesday lunchtime Lions media briefing in Jersey. 

“And we had spoken potentially about Finn Russell being on the bench but Owen can cover us at twelve and then Anthony Watson on the bench is covering the back three. We just wanted to give Finn a little more time. He had a little bit of a slight ankle strain last week with Racing so we thought we would just give him a little more time to get that ankle right even though he is training fully. Yeah, that was our thoughts behind that.”

Saturday’s Lions 23 includes eight players who started the final match of the 2017 tour, the third Test versus the All Blacks. Gatland is starting Liam Williams, Conor Murray, Owens and skipper Jones and has George, Tadhg Furlong, Taulupe Faletau and Watson in reserve against the Japanese. However, Gatland admitted he didn’t select his team aware of this level of continuity between the last outing in 2017 and this first match of 2021. 

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“Just a coincidence,” he said. “I haven’t even looked at the numbers. We wanted to play a few of the Scottish boys because they are at home and a few others have come in late with the Saracens boys and the Exeter boys not being available. That just changes the make-up of the side a little bit. It wasn’t really thinking too much about players and the combinations and where they come from, it was players that had been available to us the last couple of weeks and putting out what we think is a strong side that can do a job for us.”

It was 2005 when the Lions last played a pre-departure match in the UK. That game was drawn versus Argentina in Cardiff and Gatland is expecting Japan to similarly be a handful in Edinburgh as they had a headstart on the Lions through playing the Sunwolves recently. “We’re expecting a really strong test from Japan,” he reckoned. 

“They have already had a warm-up game against the Sunwolves. They probably felt they weren’t at their best, particularly in the first 50, 60 minutes, but they won the game in the end so they will be a lot stronger as a combination for this game on Saturday. They are World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they have achieved in recent years and we are expecting a really tough encounter first up. 

“We know we are going to be a little bit rusty. We are trying to put some layers together in terms of what we are trying to achieve as a squad, getting calls and the players becoming familiar with each other. We know that is going to take a bit of time.

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“It’s brilliant we are going to have some crowd there in Edinburgh – 16,500 – which is great and this group of players get the chance of getting this tour off to the right start. They get the chance to really impress but also it’s an important job for the whole squad that we go out there and give a good performance as well.”

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Gatland explains his 'no English' Lions XV and addresses Finn Russell injury scare

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