FINN RUSSELL will be given as much time as the Lions management team can possibly afford in his race to recover from a minor Achilles tear so that he can be in the selection mix for the tourists’ three-match Test series against South Africa, which kicks-off next Saturday.

The Scottish playmaker has been ruled out of the tourists’ three remaining warm-up matches due to the injury, and head coach Warren Gatland has flown England’s Marcus Smith out to South Africa as a precaution, but for as long as Russell remains a part of the touring party then his courageous style will be regarded by the coaching staff as potentially a game-breaking alternative to the more controlled approach to stand-off play offered by Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. 

“We’ll give Finn the best possible chance we can give him,” insisted Lions assistant coach Neil Jenkins. “He’s a class act, a class player, a good man, and an important part of this squad – so hopefully he can get himself fit and give himself an opportunity to be involved in these Test matches. 

“He’s being monitored and looked after every day, so we’ll see where he is at each day. We’ve got a fantastic medical staff so they’ll give him every opportunity that they can to get himself fit, and hopefully he can get himself right and put himself up for selection.” 

Meanwhile, Jenkins insisted that the Lions’ preparation for tonight’s clash against South Africa ‘A’ has not been negatively impacted by attack coach Gregor Townsend – the Scotland head coach – being stuck in isolation at the moment, meaning he has to communicate his game-plan to the squad via video calls. 

The Welshman insisted that between Gatland, defence coach Steve Tandy and himself, there is more than enough rugby knowledge to fill the void created by Townsend’s absence. 

“We’ll be clear and concise, and the guys will be ready to rock tomorrow night,” insisted the Welshman. “There was always a possibility that something like this could happen, and it has happened, but we like to think that we’ve gone about our business pretty well and we’re looking forward to the match now.” 

“We’ve also got some fantastic players here who can lead from the front both on and off the pitch,” he added. “Certainly, our decision-makers and our 10s are experienced players, and they can take a fair bit of responsibility as well. So, it is about everyone linking-in and everyone helping-out, the same as they always do – it is no different really. 

“We have some world class players in our squad and talent throughout, so training is exceptional. Sometimes you are going against each other and it is a Test match in itself without the full-on contact – the speed of work, decision-making and accuracy has been very, very good, and I think we have seen some of that in the games already. 

“Of course, we’d love Gregor to be here, there is no doubting that, and he will be here pretty soon – but we’ve got everyone chipping-in and giving their own input in the right way.” 

The will Lions face their biggest challenge of the tour against a South Africa ‘A’ side which is not far off the full Test team they are likely to face in 10 days’ time. 

With their warm-up game against Georgia last weekend being cancelled due to the prevalence of Covid in both squads, the Springboks have identified this game as their last opportunity to get all their available big-hitters up to match speed, and have selected a squad which contains 18 members of the 2019 World Cup winning squad, including 12 players who took part in their victory over England in the tournament final. 

“They’ll have a very good side out tomorrow, so I think it will be very tight and very tough, and it could go either way,” acknowledged Jenkins. “Of course, we would love to win and perform well, but it is not the be-all and end-all,” said Jenkins. “It is all about the Test series a week on Saturday and being ready for that – because that’s what you generally get remembered for on Lions tours.” 

Meanwhile, Covid is not the only troubling backdrop to this tour. At least 45 people have now died in the violence that has engulfed parts of South Africa since the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma last week. Almost 800 people have been arrested in the unrest that began last Thursday and turned violent over the weekend and the military has now been deployed to help the overstretched police, bringing into sharp focus once again the deep social problems the country is battling against. 

Springboks assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said he hopes that a successful summer for the national rugby team can help give the population some comfort and hope. 

“Everything that’s happening now is very, very sad but if we can get an opportunity as a Springbok team to unite the country and put a smile on people’s faces, that is what we live for,” he said. “Hopefully, we can do that by getting an opportunity to play against the British and Irish Lions and show the people of South Africa we can work together and start spreading some positive energy. Anything is possible – we can achieve anything as a country. 

“I will never forget the images on the streets after we won the World Cup where everyone – pink, black, white, brown, yellow – everyone on the streets was speaking only one language, which was the language of rugby. Everyone was happy at that time and those are the moments we want to create in South Africa. That’s the kind of hope we want to build.”