FINN RUSSELL remains hopeful of playing for Scotland at some point during this Six Nations campaign, despite his relationship with Gregor Townsend appearing to have hit rock bottom following a Sunday evening drinking session in the team’s hotel bar, which led to the stand-off being told he will not be involved in next Saturday’s championship opener against Ireland. It is understood that Townsend is also keen to find a common ground to rescue the relationship.
Details remain hazy but it appears that the 27-year-old playmaker, who had played for Racing 92 versus Saracens earlier that day, refused to stop drinking despite being urged to do so by Scotland squad players and staff, and there may have been words exchanged with Townsend.
Russell did not stay in the hotel that night and instead returned home to his parents’ house near Stirling at 10pm [note: in an interview four days after this article was published, Townsend stated that the player had left the hotel at around 11.45pm]. He did not attend training on Monday morning but a meeting was arranged with Townsend that evening, and he also met up with new captain Stuart Hogg. Russell was apparently told by Townsend that the situation was resolvable, although it was made clear that there would have to be consequences which would include being excluded from camp for the time being and being left out of the team’s Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin a week on Saturday.
Townsend told Russell that he would phone on Tuesday morning to tell him when he could come back into camp, but there was no call until Tuesday evening, and at that point still no clarification on when he could rejoin the group. On Wednesday morning, Russell was told by Townsend that he was free to return to Paris to start preparing for Racing 92’s match against Castres on Saturday if that was his preference, and he flew out of Scotland at 6am on Thursday morning. Townsend has also contacted Racing 92 directly about the situation.
A statement issued by the SRU yesterday lunchtime stated: “Stand-off Finn Russell will play no further part in preparations for Scotland’s Six Nations opener against Ireland, having been disciplined for a breach of team protocol during the week’s camp in Edinburgh. He has returned to his club.”
It is worth noting that there is not a defined set of team protocols for the Six Nations (rather a loose understanding of expected levels of behaviour) and there has been no formal disciplinary process brought against Russell.
The absence of Russell from the team to play Ireland – and from the rest of the tournament if it comes to that – represents a major blow. He may have a tendency to blow hot and cold, but when he hits his groove he is one of the most inventive, effective and exhilarating attacking players in world rugby.
He is a gregarious and popular member of the Scotland squad, and with 49 caps to his name he has a level of experience which is in short supply in the national team backline at the moment after the recent retirements of Greig Laidlaw and Tommy Seymour, and the non-selection for this championship of Peter Horne.
Russell exudes a jack-the-lad personality, and a viral video clip of him, Laidlaw and a handful of other members of the national squad singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ following the team’s famous Calcutta Cup victory in 2018 highlights that he is not averse to a post-match tipple – but he also takes his rugby far more seriously than he often lets on, and is fiercely passionate about playing for Scotland, so it seems there is more to this story than one individual blowing off a bit too much steam following a big match.
Russell has a complicated relationship with the Scottish Rugby Union. In 2018, his father, Keith, won an unfair dismissal case against the organisation, after which he launched a scathing broadside at the management culture at Murrayfield. The player has, in the past, made no secret his disdain for certain senior figures at the top of the organisation.
Rumours have circulated for some time that Russell’s relationship with Townsend is not great. As a player, Townsend was cut from the same cloth as Russell in terms of being a highly talented free-spirit determined to play the game with wit and ambition, but his coaching style is a bit more regimented and Russell gave an indication of strain when discussing the team’s remarkable 2019 Calcutta Cup comeback in a TV interview straight after the game.
“I actually had an argument with Gregor [at half-time],” he told the reporter. “I said to him: ‘You’re telling us to kick and when we kick, they just run it back and cut us open, and when we run it, they’re just hitting us behind the gain line and winning the ball back’. Second half, we just came out with nothing to lose, played our rugby, kicked out of our half and scored some great tries. We played good Scottish rugby.”
The SRU were at pains to stress afterwards that Russell’s words should not be read into too deeply, but as this story unfolds it seems that a festering tension has developed into a full-blown personality clash which could deprive Scotland of one of its most important players during a pivotal Six Nations campaign.