WHATEVER water passed under the bridge between Scotland’s two talismanic backs during the early part of this Six Nations campaign, when Finn Russell ended up exiled from the national squad due to a blow-up which escalated from captain Stuart Hogg’s directive to not have another beer on the Sunday night when he arrived in camp – there is now a clear determination to let bygones be bygones and to move forward positively for the good of the whole team.
The pair will line-up on the same side for the first time in over a year this afternoon as Scotland look to finish their elongated 2020 Six Nations campaign on a high with a win against Wales in a game being played behind closed doors at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, and Hogg jumped at the opportunity during yesterday’s pre-match zoom conference to sing the praises of his long-time partner in crime.
“I love it, just love it,” he enthused, when asked about lining up alongside Russell. “I’m a huge fan of the way that Finn plays rugby. You’ve just got to give that guy the licence to express himself.
“He’s been playing some outstanding rugby for Racing over the last few months and hopefully he can continue that form. It’s been great to have him back. His experience is one thing and the way he speaks to boys is another – he really drives standards and drives us around the field.
“So, yes, I’m really excited for him to be back in the starting ten jersey and hopefully he can drive us to a win.”
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“I’ve chatted a fair amount to both Finn and [head coach] Gregor Townsend over the lockdown, and it was always going to be the case that Finn would be back in a Scotland jersey,” Hogg continued. “He’s a world class talent and he’s excited to be back making a difference. I’ve seen a massive difference even just this week in the way he’s talking to boys. He knows what he wants from everyone else so it’s great to have him back. I’m really, really excited.”
Scotland could theoretically finish second in the Six Nations table if they beat Wales handsomely [kick-off: 2.15pm] and England combust against Italy [4.45pm], but realistically they are playing for third place, which would still represent an encouraging rebound from a traumatic World Cup campaign last September and October.
Momentum would appear to be on the visitors’ side with Townsend’s team having won their last three games on the bounce, while Wales have now lost four on the trot since their Six Nations opening weekend victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium. However, the weight of history leans towards the hosts given that they have not lost at home to Scotland since 2002.
While the weather forecast has improved from the strong winds and thundery showers being predicted earlier in the week, it remains unlikely that the match will be played in conditions conducive to the carefree brand of rugby that Russell is renowned for – but Hogg backs his team-mate to be able to adapt to suit the occasion.
“We have touched on the weather conditions all week,” he said. “We all know fine well when it is on to play and when to get rid of the ball and defend, and Finn has been at the forefront of that.
“He has a terrific kicking game and his game management is right up there with the best in the world. Hopefully he can put us in the right areas and make sure we are constantly going forward.
“I just think in international rugby you have limited opportunities and you just have to make the most of every single one,” he added. “We’ve talked a lot this week about every time we get to their 22, we have to come away with points, whether that be a penalty, drop-goal or a try and conversion – whatever it may be to keep that scoreboard ticking over. We need to use our energy in the right way when we get into the zone and make sure we come away with points.”
That might sound like Scotland will look for the three points with every penalty they get within range, but Hogg insists that is not a foregone conclusion.
“Obviously, Finn can goal-kick, and I can potentially take the longer ones along with Blair Kinghorn, but it is just about how we feel at the time,” he explained. “If we feel we have got the momentum behind us then we’ll challenge them up front.
“I believe in our forward-pack and our set-piece being able to get us good go-forward ball, but it will be a decision which will be made there and then. We can’t really talk about it at the minute because we don’t really have a feel for the game, and nor do we know how the weather is actually going to be.”
Earlier this week, Lions head coach Warren Gatland defended his decision to pick only a light smattering Scots in the previous tours he has taken charge of on the basis that the players have consistently failed to demonstrate the mental toughness required to win big matches on the road.
It is a fair point given that Scotland haven’t managed a Six Nations win away from Murrayfield against any team other than Italy since beating Ireland at Croke Park back in 2010, and Hogg acknowledges that the only real response for Lions aspirants in the current squad is to break that long miserable run before next summer’s trip to South Africa.
“Our away record has not been good enough, simple as that,” he acknowledged. “We can’t change what happened in the past but we can control what happens in the future. What better start than kicking off with a win down in Wales?
“Warren Gatland is fully entitled to his opinion, he is a very experienced rugby coach, but we will concentrate on ourselves and make sure we are in a position to create our own little bit of history.”
Meanwhile, Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair backed Hogg’s endorsement of Russell’s ability to pay wet-weather rugby.
“The kicking game is a really interesting one, because probably a lot of the flair decisions that are spoken about with Finn are the short kicking game, and a major thing is obviously the execution, but the other part is seeing the space,” he explained.
“When playing in tough conditions, finding kick space is really important, and we believe that Finn is fantastic at finding kick space and being able to execute. That’s a major thing for us. That helps us. With the weather conditions as we foresee them being, there will be less of that opportunity to throw the long skip pass. But Finn is equally good at finding a short pass.
“So that vision side of things, which makes up a huge part of the off-the-cuff type of plays that he does, they’re going to be as important for when you’re playing a more tactical game as well.”
Blair pointed out that Russell will be assisted by having another decision-maker on his shoulder in James Lang at inside-centre.
“He’s a traditional New Zealand second five-eighth in that he can play as a 10 or a 12. We’ve got other kickers around the pitch to share the load. But his [Lang’s] ability at 10, [means] he knows what Finn and Adam [Hastings] will want whenever they’re on, he knows he can help them with communication and options, seeing kick-space as well, so there’s a big emphasis on that, and the experience that Lang has had as a 10 should help us.”
He also had words of praise for Scotland scrum-half Ali Price as a valuable influence on Russell’s inside.
“The way he’s coping, the way he carries himself, the leadership that he bring to the team now,” is exceptional said the former scrum-half. . “He’s really lifted his game, and he’s had to because we have a tremendous amount of competition there now with George Horne and Scott Steele, who has come in this week and added something a bit different.
“I think Ali will have an excellent crack at the Lions [in 2021]. We’ve been delighted with how he has played and led and grown over the last 18 months.”
Blair hadn’t yet made his international debut the last time Scotland won in Wales back in 2002, and he was involved in five defeats in the Principality during his 85-cap career, so he is acutely aware of the long history of disappointment in this fixture, and is desperate to be a part of the squad in a coaching capacity which finally puts the 18-year hoodoo to bed.
“I’m not too sure how many of the pre-2012-13 games the current crop has watched, hopefully for my sake not many,” he reflected. “There is that history element in the 18 years. It won’t be so much what happened in those specific games but this squad are really keen to make history. That’s a huge driving force behind what we’re doing and having that 18 year stat there to be broken is something we can really challenge for.”