GREGOR TOWNSEND has acclaimed Finn Russell as one of the most gifted players of all time, and said the Racing 92 playmaker is only now approaching his peak.
Speaking at the launch in London of this year’s Guinness Six Nations Championship, the Scotland coach went out of his way to heap praise on Russell, whose hopes of representing his country again looked in serious jeopardy late last year when he was left out of the squad for the Autumn Nations Series. An injury to Adam Hastings saw Russell recalled to the fold, and Townsend said the 30-year-old’s performances in the remaining games were exemplary.
“He’s one of the most skilful players to ever play the game – not just playing now, but to ever play the game,” Townsend said. “In that position you’ve got to take a big role in the leadership of the game, and that requires work and preparation – and Finn does that.
“You’ve got to practise a lot of watching rugby, and experience rugby, to know when to pull the trigger. And there’s a lot of discipline that has to go into it, to make the decision whether to offload or to kick.
“People change as well throughout their rugby careers and their lives. You’re a different person at 20, 21 years old than you are at 30. Finn has had changes in life – he just became a dad for the first time.
“He’s coming into his prime years. He’s coming into that time where physically you’re still able to compete and do what you want to do, but you have that knowledge of ten years playing at No 10 and are aware of what a defence might look like after two or three phases.
“So it’s a great opportunity for him – this championship, and obviously the World Cup too.”
In the autumn, Russell returned to the Scotland squad for the last two matches, the loss to New Zealand and the win over Argentina, and according to Townsend he hit his best form straight away. “Finn was outstanding in the autumn,” the coach added. “It was probably the best he’d played for Scotland in two or three years. He played at a really high level against New Zealand and gave an even better performance against Argentina.
“He was great around the group, like he always is. He’s very good to work with. He’s now at a level of experience where he understands the game and what defences are going to do.
“Physically, he’s in really good shape too. He had a week off for Racing over Christmas, which I think will help him during the Six Nations because he does play a lot of rugby over in France. He’ll be looking forward to the championship like we are.
“He’s a very competitive player, Finn, and this doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s a laid-back person and he’s even laid back on the field, but he’s competitive.”
Sitting next to his coach at the launch, Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie agreed that Russell was an easy person to work with, as well as being a very conscientious one when it comes to doing his homework on the opposition. “I’d echo what Gregor said,” the Edinburgh forward stated. “He’s not a confrontational character, he’s not a controversial character. He’s a great person to have around, a great person for the young guys to learn from – for us all to learn from, in fact.
“He’s really diligent in and around his analysis. He’s always on his laptop watching training back and watching the opposition we’ve got coming up, looking for opportunities. The stuff you see at the weekends doesn’t happen by accident. He’s a great guy for us to have around the squad.”
Scotland’s first game in the Six Nations is at Twickenham against England, who are under new management in Steve Borthwick. The former international lock is a very different character from Eddie Jones, the man he replaced as head coach, and Townsend suggested that difference would be evident in the team’s style of play.
“If you’re trying to predict what rugby they’re going to play, maybe it’s going to be a bit more simplified, because it’s a new coaching group and they’ve only got these four or five training sessions before we play them. There will be a big focus on the forwards, the set piece, maybe the maul.
“So we’ve got to be aware of that and match that, but also get our game into play, take our game to them. So we will be focused a lot on ourselves.”
- Edinburgh second-row Jamie Hodgson has been called into Scotland’s Six Nations training squad with Jonny Gray remaining with his club, Exeter Chiefs, due to an ongoing medical issue.