FINN RUSSELL has offered some sympathy for Richie Gray, saying he understands why the Toulouse lock decided he could not commit to Scotland for the World Cup.
The continuing omission of Gray from the squad was baffling to many before assistant coach Danny Wilson explained on Tuesday that it had been at the player’s request. Gray, who has a young family, cited family reasons when informing head coach Gregor Townsend of his decision, while Wilson also made mention of the demands of the French club season on a player who only recently came back from injury.
Russell, a Top 14 rival of Gray’s at Racing 92, had no complaints to make about the forwards decision. “I can understand it,” he said. “He has had a long season with Toulouse, has just come back from injury – I think it was his hip that he had issues with – and I think it was about 15 June that they played the final.
“If you have a few weeks off and then come straight back in you could put yourself at risk, not just for the World Cup but for the next season and the rest of his career. I think that might have been a factor for him. He also had a baby not that long ago, so he has a lot going on I think, on and off the field, so I understand his decision not to be involved.”
Russell, of course, very much wants to be involved, not just at the World Cup but in Scotland’s two remaining warm-up games. Speaking before the squad flew out to Tbilisi for Saturday’s game against Georgia, he said he expected a difficult match against a side who have strengthened noticeably over the past few seasons.
“It will be tough. I went there a similar time last year with Racing – for 12 days, I think. (For the four-team Rugby Summer Cup). We’re in a hotel close to where we were, so I know what to expect from the facilities and the conditions.
“The Georgian team are going to be strong – they’re getting better every year. There’s a couple of Georgian players I play with at Racing, so it will be fun for me going against them. Looking at the quality they bring to Racing, it shows what they have, and they’re getting a lot more depth. We’ll need to be at our best to go there and win.
“The weather will be a bit warmer than here, but the conditions for the game are not meant to be the best. I think it’s actually meant to rain. When we get there we’ll have a better feel for it and see what the conditions are.
“It will be big for us if we manage to get a win this weekend. It would put us in a great position coming back to Murrayfield the next weekend. I think then we have a great chance of winning at home in front of our home crowd and get some momentum going into the World Cup.”
Away day blues
Winning in Tbilisi would be a significant achievement for Scotland, not only because Georgia will be desperate to claim the scalp of the first Tier One nation to agree to play them on their own turf. The fact remains that winning away from home nearly anywhere continues to prove difficult for Scotland.
Russell admitted it was hard to pinpoint exactly why that should be, pointing out that it is perfectly possible for the team to play exceptionally well in some away games, even if not for the whole 80 minutes. So far at least, he added, the away form has not appeared such a perplexing problem that the management team have had to bring in outside help to analyse it.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say what it is. Looking at the games in the Six Nations, the first half against England wasn’t good but the second half was. We were away from home for both halves, so how can it change that much?
“It could be a mental thing, I’m not sure. It could be a belief thing. Hopefully we will be able to change it this weekend. When we go to Japan all the teams, apart from Japan, are away from home so it will be different over there.
“Gregor coached Glasgow for a long time, so he has had away games and home games in the PRO14. In that it was different, because some of the teams in the league weren’t as good, but at international level everywhere you go you’re up against a top team. He’s not brought in anyone who has given us anything that really stood out on what we have to change for away games.
“Georgia are a really good team. If we can get a really good performance and a win, we can then look back and work out what we did differently during the week, or individually in the build-up to the game to get ourselves in the right headspace.”