THERE were innumerable reasons why Scotland lost to Italy last time out but the fact that Finn Russell was sitting on the sofa at home and ranting at the television rather than doing anything more energetic must rank high amongst them.
The Scotland stand-off copped a ban for taking Dan Biggar out in mid-air during the Welsh match and, after an appeal was refused, he was forced to sit out that Italian thriller. He did not even attend the match, preferring to stay at home instead and, like millions of others, Russell couldn’t quite help himself from offering some unsolicited advice.
“I watched it on telly, I watched it at the house,” he says. “I had another weekend off, I just chilled out. It was pretty frustrating because watching it on telly you see a lot of things that you don’t see on the pitch. So I am saying, do this and do that, but on the pitch they don’t see everything. It’s easy for me sitting back watching it, it’s harder when you are out there.
“I wasn’t shouting too much, I was more just saying things like, ‘why don’t they do this’ or ‘why don’t they do that?’ But its easier when you are watching to say things like that.”
Russell is expected to take his place in the Scotland team that is bidding to avoid equalling the worst losing run in the long history of this competition. Ireland once lost 13 successive matches in Paris and Scotland have lost their last 12 matches in London. One more and they will match that unlucky 13.
If Scotland are to pull off an unlikely upset, they will need their young stand-off to pull out the performance of his career. Russell has shown glimpses of what he can do, a genuine all-round playmaker, good at finding the spaces behind what is sure to be a fast and flat English defence but, arguably happier attacking with the ball in hand. He is not the only young stand-off making his mark because England have their own “wunderkid” and the pair go way back.
George Ford and Finn Russell first faced off back in 2010 when the England under-20s trounced their Scottish counterparts 26-6 at Firhill… well, almost. With the game won, Ford left the action early to be replaced by Tom Heathcote (who was English in those days) before Russell had managed to set one foot on the field as a late replacement.
“I spoke to him briefly after the Bath [against Glasgow] game down there,” says Russell of his opposite number. “At under-20s he was the No 10 for England. I only got on for ten minutes so I never played [against] him at Firhill. So I have seen him play a bit. I don’t know him, I spoke to him briefly after the Bath game. He’s another young ten that is making his mark and establishing himself as the England ten. He is a quality player; playing against him and watching him play, his kicking game and his running game.
“I have played against him so I kind of know what he looks to do as he probably does with me I’d imagine. It’s just another game and he’s another ten and hopefully we can get on.”
Russell played alongside his two Glasgow amigos, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett in the opening two Six Nations rounds and the player waxes lyrical on how their club and social relationship has helped them gel at international level. He claims the understanding at times is almost intuitive. “You have an idea of what each other are going to do before they actually do it, you feed off them without having to call anything,” he said.
If there is one area that Scotland might yet spring a surprise on England it surely revolves around that Glasgow midfield axis, even if Edinburgh’s Matt Scott surely got a mention in selection. His muscular and intelligent work in defence could come in handy against the power of Luther Burrell and the footwork of Jonathan Joseph, the find of the tournament to date. But Bennett has looked threatening in attack throughout and Vern Cotter may feel that the Glasgow trio are worth another shout given the manner in which they ripped Bath apart at Scotstoun (Bath backs fill England’s ten, 13 and 14 shirts).
The other good news for a Glasgow-dominated back division is that England pick and choose when to compete at the breakdown.
Defence coach Andy Farrell wants players on their feet rather than burrowing into the breakdown, so the Scots should be able to build the phases, assuming they set up camp inside the England half. If the midfield can get the ball around or through an all-enveloping English rush defence then the visitors’ back three, with Sean Maitland presumably returned to duty, have the fire power to do some damage.
But all the straw-clutching in the world can’t change the simple fact that Scotland have to climb a near vertical mountain and they are equipped with flip flops rather than crampons, a point that Russell concedes.
“We will definitely be the underdogs at the weekend,” he states the glaringly obvious. “We haven’t won down there in 32 years so it’s quite a while. But I think that Scotland are underdogs quite a lot of the time when they play games.
“On the pitch it’s 15 against 15 and there is everything to play for. If we manage put in the performance that we know we can then we could get the result this week. If the bounce of the ball goes our way, then you never know.”
And if the stand-off is faced with another high ball and an opposite number who is airborne early?
“I will probably just run the other way!”
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