by ALAN LORIMER
ULTIMATELY, it was an effective substitution by Gregor Townsend but there was no doubt that, at that point in the match, la fin de Finn was a gamble. It must have been a tough call for Scotland’s head coach, who’d had to watch his star stand-off commit a few howlers that negated some of the very good pieces of play he orchestrated.
The difficulty for Russell is that, as in the Wales game in Cardiff, Scotland were a tad orthodox and predictable in the opening minutes, shuffling the ball along the back-line at a none too quick pace and becoming easy prey for the defence. That is not Russell’s natural game. Like Townsend in his heyday, the Paris-bound playmaker is at his best when the game breaks up and when Scotland, and indeed Glasgow, operate at speed.
Against France, Scotland achieved this higher tempo only in brief spells during the first half, notably in the build-up to Huw Jones’ try. Then, after the break, the Scots adopted a more direct approach with strong carries by the forwards, amplified when David Denton came off the bench to play the type of game that suits the Worcester player best, to create the kind of unstructured game in which Russell thrives.
As for the substitution, Townsend admitted afterwards that his stand-off had been below his best form but certainly nowhere near the point that he would exit the team ahead of the arrival of England in less than two weeks’ time. What it does do, however, is send a signal to the loquacious Eddie Jones that Scotland do have options. And that in turn might mean the programming of England’s robotic style requiring a tweak.
But there is another thought that arises from Russell’s earlier-than-expected departure from the field of play. And it is the what-if situation of an injury to Scotland’s orchestrator. Who exactly would take over at stand-off. Peter Horne is the obvious answer at the moment and Greig Laidlaw would do a job, but who else might fit the bill?
Duncan Weir has much ground to regain and would his attributes fit with the game Townsend wants Scotland to play? Perhaps now is the time to scan the horizon and seek out alternative ‘tens’. That of course will be the task facing Glasgow Warriors’ head coach, Dave Rennie, after Russell moves into the Parisian rugby scene with Racing 92.
Adam Hastings looks in line to step into Russell’s boots at Scotstoun but the development of youngsters like Brandon Thomson will be crucial. Another player worth tracking is Connor Eastgate. The Wasps Academy player, an integral member of the Scotland Under-20 side that finished fifth in last year’s World Rugby Junior Championship, will be out of contract at the end of this season and perhaps could and should be attracted north of the border.
Further down the line is Edinburgh’s ‘project’ stand-off Jaco van der Walt, one of the last to squeeze through on the three-year residency rule, which has now, and not before time, become a five-year wait.
Then there is the current England under-20 cap Cameron Redpath, the son of the former Scotland captain and scrum half Bryan Redpath. The younger Redpath was at inside centre against Wales last weekend (alongside another ‘Scot’, Fraser Dingwall) but is equally competent at stand-off.
It looks as though Redpath will choose to chance his luck and strive for the more lucrative returns of an England call-up at senior level, but Scotland would be foolish to write him off just yet. Why not a contract with Edinburgh?
In any case, Redpath will be acutely aware that because of the sheer size of the Premiership (and indeed the Championship) Academies’ production system England are not short of candidates pushing for advancement, among them Max Malins from last year’s England under-20 team. And, moreover, England are not shy about signing ‘foreigners’ despite having more rugby players than any country in world rugby.
In contrast, the Scotland pipeline can often fail to produce even a trickle of talent. Which, of course, is why Murrayfield has its group of global scouts constantly searching for Scotland qualified players, however tenuous the connection may be.
All of which is back-up strategy and next generation talk. Right now, whatever his flaws, Russell is box-office material. He is the kind of wunderkind that comes along only rarely and Scotland should be thankful for his presence. But, at the risk of repetition, it is worth restating that there is mutual need. The Scotland team needs Finn to pull the strings but Russell also needs the team to create the stage for him to be the star he truly is.