FINN RUSSELL has denied that Scotland’s U-turn in agreeing to have the roof at the Principality Stadium closed for tomorrow [Saturday] afternoon’s Six Nations clash has handed Wales a psychological advantage.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland expressed his disappointment on Thursday that Scotland had not agreed to have the roof closed, with opposite number Gregor Townsend retorting later that afternoon that he was comfortable with the match being left open to the elements as he was expecting dry weather, adding that he didn’t want the ball to get ‘sweaty’ from the humidity created by having over 74,500 bodies enclosed inside the stadium..
However, Townsend changed his tune overnight and agreed that the game should be played under full coverage, meaning that a cauldron-like atmosphere is guaranteed.
“I think the weather conditions changed over the week so that’s why it’s now closed,” said Russell. “I think it will make for an exciting, fast, free-flowing game of rugby tomorrow. It does mean it will get slightly greasier inside the stadium with the humidity, but both teams will have the same conditions.
“Whether it is open or closed, I don’t think it will change too much. I was at Racing 92 for five years, who have got an indoor stadium, so I’m pretty used to it.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere with the roof open, but it’ll be even louder now with it closed, so that’s something we might have a chat about with certain players in terms of what it’ll be like,” added the Scotland captain. “They will embrace it and enjoy it. We want to be confident and go out there and have some fun.
“For us, it’s about building belief and confidence, and finding a way to get back to how we’ve trained this week if things don’t go to plan.
“Everyone knows that sport can change really quickly. If they get into the game, the crowd could obviously have an influence on the Welsh team. You never know what 80,000 Welsh fans can do to a referee as well. We need to just be focused on our job and be confident.
“The first 20 minutes is going to be hugely important, for the crowd especially. I don’t think it’s possible to keep them quiet, but if we can do our best to get ahead or to make sure we’re putting them under pressure, putting the kicks in the right place, getting ourselves into the game, that will be massively important.
“That’s the case for every Test match, but with the crowd here it’s potentially even more important.”
Scotland have not won in Cardiff since 2002 but come into the match as big favourites at the bookmakers. They have a settled squad and can draw on the experience of some hugely experienced performers, such as Russell, Richie Gray and Zander Fagerson who all have over 60-caps.
Meanwhile, their opponents are at the start of a rebuilding process following a spate of high profile retirements including Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny. They have also been hit by a series of injuries, meaning they start the match with 127 caps in total less than the Scots.
But Russell warned that the Scots must be wary of the threat posed by a team who are an unknown quantity and have nothing to lose.
“There will be players looking to cement their place in the Welsh team tomorrow and they’ll be looking to put on a show for the coaches, so that makes them even more dangerous,” he explained.
“If there is a team that’s regularly there, that you can preview and know roughly what they are going to do. That makes it slightly easier for us both defensively and attacking-wise to create a game-plan. Whereas tomorrow we’ve focussed on ourselves because we don’t know what the Welsh team is going to bring.
“So, that makes it a different sort of challenge for us, but an exciting challenge to come down here and try to beat a raw Welsh team.
“The atmosphere in this stadium is one of the best in the world and when the Welsh boys put that red jersey on, they become different players to when they are at their clubs.
“We won in Wales four years ago but it wasn’t here and was without a crowd due to Covid, so coming to a Principality Stadium packed out with Welsh fans is going to be a very different challenge for us.
“We’ve got a few new faces, too, and after a disappointing World Cup we’ve got a point top prove – I think both teams have – so it is going to be a very exciting game tomorrow.”
Russell added that he expects the kicking contest to be key in deciding how the match pans out, and backed rookie Kyle Rowe, a winger who has been pressed into action at full-back following an injury to Blair Kinghorn, to cope with the challenge.
“We know Wales like to kick, whether it’s kicking long, kicking contestable, kicking in attack, so we’ve had a bit more kicking in our sessions this week.” he said. “We’re not going to lose the attacking side we had in the World Cup, however coming down here we can’t be running it from everywhere and giving away costly turnovers in our own half.
“The territory battle and the kicking battle will be massive. We’ve still got that attacking mentality but at times myself, Ben White and Kyle will have to put boot to ball.
“I think Kyle’s obviously less experienced at international level but he’s a great player so we’ve not had to change that much. “The more I can chat to him I can make sure he doesn’t go into this shell if he feels a bit of pressure in front of the crowd. I just want to give him that confidence and belief in himself which I know he’s got.
“I need to make sure he keeps it for the whole 80 minutes no matter what. He’s a quality player and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there.
“We’ve got to come here with belief and confidence in ourselves, but we know we have to start this game as quickly as we can to try and take the crowd out of it and try to get a foothold into the game early on.”
Along with running Scotland’s attack, kicking the goals and supporting his team-mates, Russell will be responsible for communicating with the referee during the match, but he is typically unfazed by the workload.
“I’ll try and get a feel for what needs to be said in the warm-up and building up throughout the day. I’m probably not the guy who is going to be banging chests and trying to get the boys fired up like that. I think the anthems and the atmosphere that’s going to be here tomorrow will be enough for that emotional side.
“It’s more about keeping boys calm, relaxed and getting them on their job – whether that’s the kick-off, making sure we’re through the first five minutes, how we plan on attacking them or defending against them.
“We mentioned the stadium – it’s one of the loudest – and the emotional side can be over the top, some players can get carried away with that, so for me it’s keeping an eye on how we’re building through the warm-up and what we need from those last few words in the changing room.
“I think as a 10 you’re always quite close to the referee, whether it’s at a penalty to touch, a conversion or a penalty at goal, so you’ve always got moments in the game where the match is stopped and you can have a quick chat to them a [s well as] before the match and at half-time,” he continued.
“I think the way I communicate with the refs has been pretty good over the past few years. I’ve had Ben O’Keeffe [the New Zealander who is taking charge of this weekend’s match] a few times and I’d like to think I’ve got a decent relationship with him so we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.
“At times it might be someone from the forwards who might have to put a point across to them, or Zander in the scrum – I don’t really know what goes on there. It’s quite hard for me to say what a tighthead prop is going through when I don’t understand it myself.
“That’s part of the role as captain, I get the information from the boys and just try to deal with it as best I can and take the emotion out of it. I’m always quite calm on the pitch so the emotional side won’t come out when I’m chatting to the ref and it’ll be a calm, chilled conversation.”