By Peter Jackson
According to official figures, Finn Russell’s fleeting role as a Lion amounted to one carry, two passes and a net gain of two metres. Not much to write home about, admittedly, but then his entry and exit occurred in such haste that indecent was hardly the word for it.
Fate decreed that the smiley Scot, through no fault of his own as the most temporary of substitutes, would not last long against the Hurricanes in Wellington last Tuesday. He got four minutes and if that doesn’t sound much, it was four times longer than the shortest Lions career of all time.
Had the doctors been a little quicker over Dan Biggar’s medical clearance to return to his post, Russell, below, might have been on and off the field in time to threaten a record which has stood for four decades. It belongs to a retired Welsh schoolteacher and will remain in his possession for at least four more years.
Stuart Lane, of Cardiff and Wales, won selection for the first match of the 1980 tour of South Africa, against Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth. The rugby gods decreed that his Lions career would begin one minute and end the next.
“The first match was played on a Saturday and I was very pleased to be picked in a very good team,’’ he says, rewinding his mind almost 40 years. “A lot of little things spring to mind from that day, about boots and studs, the hard ground and the very coarse grass. That’s why I wore long studs.
“I remember thinking that this would be the start of something big. Naas Botha was the Springbok superstar at the time and the Lions needed a fast openside to get among their backs. I felt I had a real chance of proving myself the man for the job.
“We had a couple of lineouts right away. After each one I went up on the opposition outside half and he was a bit flustered. He missed the ball from the scrum-half and it went towards the inside centre.
“I changed direction to tackle the centre. He came back inside me. As he did so, I put my foot in the ground to turn. My knee went. I knew right away that was it, the end before I even had time to touch the ball.
“I knew something drastic had gone wrong. I didn’t need to wait for a doctor or surgeon to tell me. The injury was so drastic that I had pulled the ligaments of my right knee clean off the bone.
“I still have a pin two inches long in the bone holding it altogether. It was very hard to come to terms with the reality. I’d just achieved the great dream of becoming a Lion and then it was all knocked from under me.
“Medical science wasn’t as advanced in those days as it is now so there was no chance of a rapid recovery. My tour was over but a million people in Wales and millions more throughout the UK and Ireland would have given their right arm to have been in my position.
“In sport you know the risks and you have to accept them. I played for Wales and for the Lions. Ok, it may only have been for a couple of minutes and I wish it had been a lot longer but I’m proud of what I’ve done.”
He has every reason to be. Now 64 and in contented retirement, the Welshman from Aneurin Bevan’s hometown of Tredegar sounds as though he got through twice as much at the Boet Erasmus Stadium 37 years ago than Russell did in more than twice the time this week at the ‘Cake Tin’.
Whether Lane played for nearer two minutes than the one attributed to him by the renowned John Hopkins in his authoritative book on the 1980 Lions is not the point. Lane played and that is more than some have managed.
Being selected is one thing. Getting into action as a Lion can be an entirely different matter and infinitely more perilous. Phil Blakeway will vouch for that, the Gloucester and England prop having won a place on the same 1980 tour as Lane only to be laid low by a sprung rib cartilage.
More recently, the same fate befell a trio of Munster’s finest – Alan Quinlan, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary. All three won places on the 2009 South African tour only to be declared non-starters before take-off for different reasons, Quinlan in a state of suspension, Flannery and O’Leary through a lack of fitness.
For them all, the chance of a lifetime had gone. Billy Vunipola, the most significant pre-tour casualty of the current series, can reasonably expect to make the next one.
The Welsh quartet put in the invidious position of being called up only because they happened to be in the locality all have enough time on their side to make South Africa in 2021 strictly on merit. Kristian Dacey, Cory Hill, Tomas Francis and Gareth Davies will also be wiser for the experience, and a little richer.
Warren Gatland’s refusal to take them off the bench when the tiring Lions needed fresh legs in the final minutes of the midweek thriller against the Hurricanes added a farcical post-script to a bemusing move. What was the point of demeaning the jersey in the first place?
“I don’t want to be controversial but I’d just make this point,’’ says Lane. “One of the best second rows in British rugby is Joe Launchbury. He’s not there and that says it all. Launchbury would have been one of the first names on my team sheet.’’
Lane, whose older brother Roger had the misfortune to be the second best No.8 in Wales when Mervyn Davies ruled that particular roost, has been busy tackling other matters.
A keen cyclist, he spent part of last month in Provence, retracing part of the Tour de France by making it all the way to the summit of Mont Ventou where the famous British cyclist Tommy Simpson lost his life 50 years ago this month. And now he is close to completing a painstaking restoration of an Austin Healey Sprite.
“And it’s very nearly ready for the road…’’
Fresh evidence that, far from fading away, old Lions keep reinventing themselves as if to make up for lost time even if, as in Lane’s case, it turned out to be cruelly short. And let nobody be in any doubt, Stuart Lane got there as one of the very best wing forwards of his day.
*This article originally featured in The Rugby Paper on July 2nd.