HIGH STAKES rugby can often be desperately dull, with the fear of failure elbowing out attacking ambition, but Finn Russell – one of the great entertainers of the modern game – marches to his own beat, and he’s predicting Friday night’s Six Nations denouement in Paris is going to be a cracker.
The hosts are chasing a bonus-point victory by more than 20-points in order to win the championship, while the visitors need to win by five points and match the number of bonus points scored by their opponents to achieve a best ever second place finish in the table, so there is plenty on the line, which is just the sort of game Russell revels in.
“It should hopefully be a great game with both teams chasing bonus points and trying to win by certain margins, so it could be a good one to watch for neutral fans,” he said.
“I do enjoy that sort of game but the majority of people who play and watch rugby will enjoy a game like that,” he continued. “Playing over in Paris, I imagine they will be favourites but we go there with a great opportunity for us to finish second. It will be an extremely tough but enjoyable game to play in if both teams are playing at their best.
“These are the games as a rugby player that you enjoy the most because there is so much on the line. We will have the Welsh fans behind us and all the fans back here in Scotland.
“It’s great for us to have a shot at France, they are up to number three in the world and have just come off the back of a big win against Wales. So, we have a chance to build on what the boys did against Italy and improve on our performance against Ireland.
For Russell and several other members of the Scotland squad, there is an added dimension to this match in terms of it being the last chance they will have in an international shirt to make their case to be selection for this summer’s Lions tour.
It was announced earlier today that the Lions have rejected proposals to play against the world champion Springboks in the UK or Australia this summer and now plan to go ahead with the initially planned trip to South Africa during July and early August.
There has not been more than two Scots named in the initial squad for a Lions tour since that famous success in South Africa in 1997 – when current Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was the Test match stand-off – but hopes are high that this year could be different. Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe, Rory Sutherland, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, along with Russell, are amongst the leading Scottish cintenders for the trip.
“It’s a goal for everyone in the UK and Ireland to get in that tour but we can’t think too far ahead,” said Russell. “I feel I am playing pretty good rugby just now for club and country but that’s irrelevant, it comes down to what’s happening in the summer. I am not even sure when they pick the squad. It’s out-with my control and I am just going to focus on France and building on the end of the season with Racing, and what will be, will be.
“The boys might have the Lions in the back of their head but this week is all about Scotland. We can’t be looking ahead to the summer. There are about eight club games left in the Top 14 for me and there’s a lot of rugby to be played before we start worrying about the summer. We need to make sure we are focused on this game against France and if boys perform well, it will obviously help our chances.”
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Sean Maitland is another member of the Scotland squad during this Six Nations who was in the frame for the Lions, but his chances will be deeply damaged by his exclusion from this game because of a shameful compromise agreement between Scottish Rugby, Six Nations and PRL – the umbrella group that represent the top clubs in England – which has allowed only five English-based players to be released for the match.
Head coach Townsend was forced into a Sophie’s choice scenario, and ended up opting for team captain Stuart Hogg, Scott Steele (as one of only two scrum-halves in the squad during this campaign), second-rows Sam Skinner and Alex Craig (covering for the injured Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray) and outside-centre Chris Harris.
On any given match-day, Maitland would be one of the first names on the team-sheet, but because Scotland have slightly better coverage in the back-three than elsewhere at the moment, he misses out – and the only chance he is going to have to impress Lions coach Warren Gatland this weekend playing for Saracens against Richmond at the Athletic Ground on Sunday afternoon instead.
Russell knew he was going to be asked about this, but it is not his place to be arguing his team-mates case. The players – like the fans – have been let down by the game’s administrators, yet again. Money trumps sporting integrity. ‘Rugby values’ have been discarded for the time being, until they are useful again for marketing purposes.
“It’s tough, it is a one-off occasion that this will happen, so I’m not sure if it’s fair or unfair,” shrugged the stand-off. “We just have to prepare as best we can with the players we have got. There will be a few boys who are gutted they are not able to be involved. Sean has been involved in most games in the Six Nations, Jamie Bhatti was back in the match-day squad again the last few weeks, but we can’t think about that, we just have to prepare as best we can.
“As a squad, if we sit back and look at ifs and buts and say ‘it’s not fair’ and all this stuff, it will be detrimental to our performance. We need to be solely focused on the game and who we have got.
“I saw him [Maitland] on Sunday when we found out which five players would be staying up and he was gutted,” he added. “There was a chance that Bhatti was maybe going to stay up from Bath, but I don’t think he was allowed.
“I’ve not spoken with either of them. I’ll maybe catch up with Bhatti in the next couple of days. I play PlayStation with both of them so that may be how I catch up with them instead of actually calling them.
“It’s only been a day or two since they left. You don’t really know what to say because it’s not like they’ve been dropped from the team, it’s just that the rules haven’t allowed them to stay.
“He [Maitland] will be a very big loss. Brice Dulin is very good in the air and that’s one of Sean’s strengths – winning balls and knocking them back. We are lucky that we’ve got Darcy and Duhan who will be able to cover for him, and there are other boys who can cover there if needed, but it’s a big disappointment not having him here this week. He’s great for the team on and off the field. He is a big character for us, is one of the more experienced guys and he brings a lot in training and in games.”