SHOULD Stuart Hogg have any second thoughts over the coming months about the wisdom of moving away from home comforts, he will find some ready reassurance if he looks at Finn Russell. Granted, these are early days in the stand-off’s post-Glasgow career, but so far at least he is flourishing with Racing 92, and playing with a harder edge while having lost none of his predictability.
As someone used to playing with both men in Warriors colours and for Scotland, Pete Horne would be understandably loath to talk up the benefits of leaving Scotstoun for other countries. But, after Scotland’s 54-17 win over Fiji on Saturday, the inside centre was particularly effusive about playing outside his old team-mate.
“He had a great game today and there were times when he showed a really cool head,” Horne said when asked if Russell’s play had appeared less chaotic than it was at times with Glasgow. “There were times in that second half when it could have got a bit harum scarum, and even in the first half, but he made really good decisions and it was a really polished performance. So we’ll see next week, but moving over to France he seems to be stepping up every week over there and being a really big player for Racing in a tough league.
“He’s just a class act. He’s played I don’t know how many good games for Glasgow, but he’s on form, he’s loving his rugby, so it sounds like it’s been a good decision for him.
“I said to him after the game, ‘I’ve missed you, you wee rocket.’ It was good to get back out there with him. I love Finn: he’s great to play outside and it was great to see him back smiling and having fun.”
Besides his own intrinsic merits as a centre, Horne has been rightly praised for the beneficial effect he has had on Russell’s game, whether it be through ensuring the outside backs are in the right position to launch an attack, or simply by being a commonsensical voice on the playmaker’s shoulder. But in turn the 29-year-old has benefited considerably from playing outside Russell – even if, as he admitted, it can be a frustrating experience at certain moments.
“I never know what’s happening with him,” Horne continued. “Over the last couple of years we’ve built a good relationship and he’s just got the ability to create something out of nothing. He really helps.
“There are times when I come in screaming at him and he’ll just turn around laugh and say ‘Horney, just chill man, relax, it’s fine!’ So although I want to throttle him at the time it’s great, that kind of rubs off and it helps. He brings a real calmness around the whole back line. He’s a great player.”
Having mentioned Russell’s unpredictability, Horne accepted that familiarity has probably led to his being able to read the number 10’s intentions better than most. “We’ve played a lot of games together, be it for Glasgow and recently for Scotland, and I like to think I’ve got a good idea when he’s going to be taking the ball out the back of the forwards, when he’s going to be challenging and I can run some lines off him and things. And I like to think we complement each other a fair bit. There are times where we should maybe kick and he’ll just move the ball that extra pass, bring the winger up a little bit, and it means I can put the ball in behind. So we’ve done pretty well in the past and long may it continue.”
The partnership did not continue until the final whistle on Saturday, as Adam Hastings came on for Horne and moved in to the fly-half role while Russell moved out to 10. The combination of the two playmakers at 10 and 12 appears to have an increasing amount of popular support behind it, but, while Horne is sure that Russell could slot into his own inside-centre role, he is not about to suggest that option to Gregor Townsend.
“Och, he’s one of those boys who could play anywhere in the back-line, I’m sure. So we’ll wait and see – who knows what’ll happen? But I’ll be making sure I tell Gregor his best position’s at 10!”
He probably does not need to do so. Asked about the possibility of having Russell and Hastings playing together, the Scotland coach suggested it was an unlikely option, and at the very least appears sure not to start both against the Springboks on Saturday.
“Probably not, because both play stand-off for their clubs,” was Townsend’s reply. “The game is changing and players can switch positions much more readily on the field. We’re looking for our 12s and 13s to get on the ball more the way we play our game, and if that 12 happens to be someone who plays regularly at 10 then that could be an option. But we have really good centres. A couple are injured at the moment, but it’s probably not going to be something we look at from the start of the game. Who knows?”