GLASGOW WARRIORS head coach Dave Rennie has urged Finn Russell to play his natural game in tonight’s Guinness PRO14 play-off semi-final clash against the Scarlets, and not get caught up in trying to make his mark in what is going to be a huge occasion for both the player and the club.
It is do-or-die time for the Scotstoun men. They have dominated the PRO14 from the outset during the regular season but that will all be for naught if they come up short against last year’s champions in this encounter; and with Russell making his last home appearance for the club ahead of his summer move to French giants Racing 92, there will be a lot of pressure on the 25-year-old to sign-off with a performance which showcases why he has become such an important figure in Scottish rugby during the last six years.
On his day, Russell is one of the most exciting playmakers in world rugby, capable of unpicking the tightest of defences with his fearlessness when taking the ball to the line and his imagination when it comes to conjuring up something out of nothing with an off-the-wall piece of skill.
But the stand-off has been known to push his luck a little bit too far at times, and his refusal to rein things in when the game is not going his way can be costly, as was the case in Scotland’s nightmare Six Nations opener down in Wales at the start of February.
Perhaps more significant in the context of this match was the torrid evening Russell experienced when the Warriors lost 24-8 at the Scarlets in early April, because the harder he tried that day the more things seemed to go wrong, and he ended up being replaced after 40 miserable minutes.
“I just want Finn to relax and do the obvious. I don’t want him to be overawed by the occasion,” said Rennie. “We’re lucky because he’s played a lot of test footie and he’s led us around the park in regard to what we have done over the last couple of weeks – so he is clear on his role.
“He is disappointed at how he went against these guys last time, when he only got 40 minutes – we’re expecting better things [this week] and so is he. He is a good player, an important part of our make-up, and I think he is in the right head space.
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“I guess what I am saying is: if there is space and it makes sense to kick it we kick it and if there are opportunity to keep the ball in hand we do that. We don’t need to try and pull rabbits out of our backsides, type of thing. I have a lot of confidence in him. He has prepared well and is excited by the challenge. It is his last game at home which is pretty special.”
Horne gets the nod
Rennie has selected George Horne as Russell’s half-back partner, in the only change to the side which lost to the Scarlets last month. The scrum-half is another mercurial character, and he has significantly less big-game experience than Henry Pyrgos and Ali Price, the two men he has usurped in recent months to claim the number nine jersey.
It is clear that the Warriors are not planning to win this game by playing it safe.
“We have picked George on his form. He is a bit of a freak in regard to his speed and conditioning. He has the ability to get to the breakdown very quickly, consistently, for as long as we need him to. And he is absolutely electric with a great ability to get second touches,” said Rennie.
“He has worked really hard on his distribution game and is passing really well, and likewise with his kicking game. He is a tough little bugger, he is competitive, and we like that about him.
“Henry gets the back-up [spot on the bench] because he is a little bit different, more experienced with an excellent kicking game. He will control the game really well.
“From a combination point of view, Finn and George have played less together compared to maybe a couple of our other nines, but they’re training all the time and even when George wasn’t necessarily starting he still linked a lot with Finn at training, so the combination’s not an issue. I agree, they’re both pretty expressive players, so if our big men can get us on the front foot they’ll both be a handful.”