STAND-OFF Finn Russell believes Scotland’s performances in the four World Cup warm-up Tests prove that the squad has made genuine progress from the Six Nations whitewash.
A 50 per cent win rate is certainly an improvement on a zero per cent one and the Scots performed well in all four of the games, with one of the victories – the 16-12 success in Turin – arguably the least impressive of the quartet.
Of course, these contests, although played in large part at a high tempo and with no little physicality, were essentially glorified friendlies and it will all be for nought if Scotland fail in their World Cup campaign, which starts two weeks tomorrow.
That said, while highly caveated, the 320 minutes of summer rugby is the only gauge we have to assess Scotland’s current state and the ever-positive Russell doesn’t need to be asked twice to see reasons for optimism following the weekend’s narrow 19-16 defeat by France in Paris. He said: “The performance we put in against France on Saturday there was brilliant and shows where we’ve come from since the Six Nations. We could have got a draw if we’d wanted, but we decided to go for the win.
“It was one pass away from getting a win. I guess you could say that was similar to a lot of the Six Nations games, a bounce-of-the-ball sort of thing, but we had so many chances and so many clean line-breaks that I think, as a team, we’ve come on so much from the Six Nations. We’re getting into the right structure and creating these opportunities, which is brilliant for us.”
Scotland outscored France by one try to nil in the Six Nations opener back in February but lost that one 15-8. On Saturday they competed with the hosts in a more sustained manner for the full 80 minutes, and Russell added: “We had a close defeat to France in the Six Nations and the same again on Saturday, but like I said we had so many opportunities this time. One pass goes to hand and we’d have won that game. Or we could easily have gone for the draw and Greeg [Greig Laidlaw] would have hit the kick. It’s better than the Six Nations.
“Then compare the results against Italy to the Six Nations. We beat Italy home and away, which is different to the Six Nations. And in the performance we showed against France there were a number of things that, if they’d gone our way, it could have been a different result.”
You sense it would take a lot to knock the confidence of Scotland’s effervescent No 10, but Russell insisted that self-belief was growing all the time throughout the squad.
“We can take a lot of positives out of the France game,” he said. “Look at the last ten minutes and the amount of pressure we put France under, as well as our defence for the whole game – that was a big thing. We’d worked on our defence and our kick-chase.
“There were so many positives from the game. It was just one missed tackle, they took their chance, and that’s what won them the game.
“We could have gone for the draw, but nah, you’ve got to go for the win, haven’t you?”
Russell, who turns 23 on 23 September – the day of Scotland’s Pool B opener against Japan in Gloucester – is now enjoying a few days off before the squad return to training in Glasgow on Thursday ahead of a big send-off dinner at the Radisson Hotel in the city that evening.
“It’s good,” said Russell of the few days break. “I’ll probably just take it easy, and maybe play a bit of golf. I’m not sure. I’ve nothing really planned – just chill out, rest, and get the body right for when I come back in.”
A few bumps and bruises are being nursed and prop Al Dickinson is going through concussion protocols following a head knock but, compared to the likes of wounded Wales, all indications are that Scotland have come through the four games in miraculously good physical shape.
“It was good to come off [the pitch] after a physical game so close to the World Cup and have no injuries,” said Russell. “You can’t go into games not trying to get injured – you can get injured in training, so you go into a game and you give it your all, and if you get injured you get injured. It was good that the boys came through it.”