ALI PRICE is a pretty happy-go-lucky kind of guy as a general rule, but there was an unmistakable extra sparkle in his million-dollar smile when he discussed the long-awaited return of old flatmate Finn Russell to the Scotland squad on Sunday night.
The stand-off was a late arrival at the national team’s training camp ahead of the kick-off of the Autumn schedule against Georgia at Murrayfield on Friday because he had been tied-up on club duty with Racing 92 in their European Champions Cup Final clash against Exeter Chiefs the previous evening.
With Russell having missed the start of the 2020 Six Nations after a very public falling out with head coach Gregor Townsend back in January, the half-pack partnership has been on ice since Scotland’s heavy defeat to Ireland in their opening game of the 2019 World Cup, and Price is delighted on both a personal and team level that his old pal is now back in the fold.
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“It will be exciting,” said Price, when asked about the prospect of rekindling his rugby ‘bromance’ with Russell. “It has been a long time since we played together but we have had some really fun games and have played in big games together. When he came in last night, I hadn’t actually seen him face-to-face for months, so it was nice to reconnect.
“I think he spoke to Gregor. I had a chat with him in the lobby and he was still getting over the loss. I think they [the Racing 92 squad] went straight back to Paris [after the Final] and then he flew here on Sunday night, so he was tired because he had had a busy couple of days, but he was excited to be back in.
“When he takes to the field it will be the first time he has played in a Scotland jersey for over a year. That’s exciting for him. It has been too long.
“He trained today and at the end of the session I told him that the first one was under the belt. It’s great to see and it’s great for the squad and for the country as well.”
Racing 92 came up short in the Final, with Russell having a tumultuous game, which included some exquisite passing which directly created two of his team’s four tries, plus plenty of other positive contributions, but he also made some costly mistakes, which has prompted a reprisal of that old debate about whether he can be relied upon to play the pivotal stand-off role at the highest level.
For his part, Price is in absolutely no doubt that Russell’s attacking verve overshadows any weaknesses in his game.
“I thought he did really well [in the Final],” said Price. “People are very quick to pick up the negatives of a player’s performance, but I think Finn assisted both of Simon Zebo’s tries and if you look at his performances over the whole of Racing 92’s Champions Cup campaign, he is a massive part of why they made it that far.
“That was a game that could have gone either way at the end. He was unfortunate with how the result went but he has had a pretty good season.
“Not everything is going to come off and mistakes are going to happen. That’s rugby, that’s life, it happens. I give him credit for going out there and trying. He plays with confidence and he doesn’t let mistakes get to him. He wouldn’t be half the player he is if he did.
“You can look at the negatives, but the amount of risks he takes that come off … although he wouldn’t say they are risks. Every now and then it doesn’t come off, but for the vast majority of the time he is creating try-scoring opportunities and winning matches.
“He is a confident guy and he has won a lot of games for Scotland and Racing because of that. He sees things on the field that other players just don’t see. You shouldn’t put a guy like that into a box – you should let him express himself.”
Adam Hastings is the man in possession of the Scotland No10 jersey, having stepped up to the plate back in February with both confidence and competence, and he will have had two weeks uninterrupted training with the squad by the time the game comes around whereas Russell will have just four days. In the circumstances, Townsend could well be tempted to go with the continuity option in his starting XV for a game in which Scotland will be targeting a comfortable win.
“I guess it is the same issue for all head coaches, at some point you need to blood players in the event of injuries or people moving on, but at the same time we are very aware that we have a huge match coming up against Wales, and after seven months of no international rugby you need to try to get some continuity back going into that game,” said Price.
“So, I think it is about trying to find a balance between giving guys who have trained well and played well for their clubs a deserved opportunity, but at the same time trying to get some form of continuity by getting your centres gelling, your half-backs gelling, and so on.”
Regardless of whether it is Russell, or Hastings, or, indeed, Duncan Weir, who gets the nod, Price knows he is going to have his work cut-out ensuring that he retains the No9 jersey, with Scott Steele of Harlequins having joined George Horne in the competition for that starting spot.
“Scotty is a really good player,” said Price. “I played with him at under-20s level so he’s my age group. I followed how he went when he moved down to England. He has very good basics, strong passing and a good box-kick. His fundamentals are really good.
“His point of difference is his defence and how aggressive he is. He gets a lot of jackals for a nine, a lot of turnovers. With the new rules he has been really good for Harlequins at getting on the ball.
“He is very consistent. Now he is settled at Harlequins, he has had a run of games and that has helped him.
“There are guys in every position who are putting pressure on and it drives standards,” Price continued. “Not just at nine, but at ten, in the centres and in the back-row. It’s a nice pressure to be under because no one can rest on their laurels.
“That has perhaps been the case at times in the past. There’s been a first team and everyone knows what the first team is. Unless there was an injury, nothing was going to change. Whereas now if you don’t perform, there are boys who are equally as capable of filling your boots. I like it.
“I’ve said it before but, in the past, there were times when I got a bit complacent. I’ll never let myself get into that mindset again because it cost me quite a lot for a year or so.”