ALL BLACKS stand-off Richie Mo’unga has described Finn Russell – the man he could very easily end up playing directly opposite on Sunday – as his “favourite 10 in the world”.
“I love Finn,” he said. “The last couple of years he has been my favourite 10 in the world. He is someone who can play any type of game, with his kicking, his running and his passing.
“I met him early on when he was in Christchurch and we played each other at club level so we go way back,” he adds. “To see him since then become the player he is now is awesome. I know how awesome he is as a player and a top bloke as well.”
That early meeting with the Scotsman was back in 2013 when Russell spent several months in New Zealand as part of Scottish Rugby’s Macphail Scholarship programme, which seeks to expose talented young players to challenging rugby environments in different rugby hotspots across the globe.
Asked about who are out in top when the two players last locked horns, Mo’unga replied: “He did. He played for what was basically a Canterbury B team which was everyone who goes to Lincoln University. He had [experienced Super Rugby players] Robbie Fruean outside him and Jordan Taufua [in the back-row], and he put on a show – as he had done all year.
“We were out in the sticks at Christchurch, but we definitely knew when he arrived that the sky was the limit for him in terms of what he could do.
“We were in the IHPU – the international high-performance unit – at Canterbury and he has good chat, he’s funny. I went to a Scottish school in Christchurch so we had a really good link before we even met. To see him grow as a player, and the confidence and flair that he has which separates him from any other ten, has been great.”
When asked if the potential involvement of Russell will change the way the All Blacks approach Sunday’s match, Mo’unga avoided giving away any trade secrets by sending another glowing tribute Russell’s way.
“For me there is probably more excitement that I could have a match-up against him,” said the 28-year-old. “I’d like to play against him because I’m all for admiring great players. Some people have a style of play that I admire more than others and he’s probably one.
“You don’t have to say too much about him because his highlights reel speaks for itself. The way that he plays is just something that I enjoy watching.
“I just think he has a lot of tools in his toolbox that he can pull out at any time of the game. He is a smooth customer, very balanced and composed. I think it will benefit Scotland hugely having him in camp even if he’s not playing. Having him around will lift the team.”
New Zealand started their Autumn schedule with a convincing 55-23 demolition of Wales last Saturday and history is on their side this weekend because the All Blacks have never lost a Test match against Scotland in 31 meetings so far, but Mo’unga insisted that there is no danger of the tourists getting ahead of themselves.
“We are really grounded in terms of last week’s performance ,” he said. “We’ve left the Principality Stadium and moved on to the next job. We know the challenges of being here, how tough it is and how important it is to be grounded again to give ourselves the best chance of back-to-back performances that we’re proud of.
“We just had a review of things that I and the team could have done better against Wales, so we are pretty happy but know that it is really important for us to reset and look at new opportunities in the challenges ahead.
“This group is so new and a lot of the players here now weren’t here in 2017. So, I think we are just relishing the fact that we have an opportunity to come up against Scotland here in Scotland. We’re just taking it day to day, and making sure that we are on an upward trend – we’re just building the foundations at the moment, which is still pretty chill but a lot of homework.”