Finn Russell ready to take senior role in half-back pairing

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He may only be 24 and have a carefree “just one of the lads” air about him but Finn Russell
is embracing a role in the Scotland team that comes with added responsibility.

The Glasgow stand-off has played the bulk of his 25-Test international career alongside the wise head of Greig Laidlaw but the 31-year-old scrum-half’s tournament-ending injury in Paris meant that Russell had to take on the mantle of senior partner in that pivotal half-back pairing.

Scotland's Finn Russell is not the senior half-back in Vern Cotter's side. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS

Scotland's Finn Russell is not the senior half-back in Vern Cotter's side. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS

Ali Price, who is only a year younger at 23 but a relative novice at the highest level in comparison to his clubmate, wore the No 9 jersey in the win against Wales and, although Warriors co-captain Henry Pyrgos was backing up on the bench, Russell found himself in the unusual position of leading the back division.

If Price gets the nod again when Vern Cotter names his team to face England in Saturday’s massive Calcutta Cup showdown at Twickenham, Russell is confident that the pairing can be as fruitful as it proved against the Welsh.

“Yeah, I guess I’m the more experienced one, rather than Greig being the more experienced one,” said Russell. “I guess I’d take a little bit more… maybe not decision-making, because we’ve still got John Barclay and Jonny Gray to discuss decisions. But in terms of attack I’d maybe take a little bit more leadership there.

“Ali’s good. He’s happy to talk through the sessions and say what he’s thinking. He’s got a good brain, so it’s good to have him there.”

Scotland coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS/SRU

Scotland coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS/SRU

Of course, ahead of the Six Nations the youthful Glasgow half-backs were tearing it up in the European Champions Cup, running amok against the likes of Leicester and Racing 92, and that experience meant the loss of long-time leader Laidlaw did not appear as calamitous as it might have done in that Wales game.

“I’ve not had to change too much, because I’ve played with Ali at Glasgow so much, so we’ve got a good understanding and we know how each other plays.

“I didn’t have to change too much at all – it was more a lot of stuff off the field I did with Ali rather than I would have with Greig. But when we played it was fine for us.”

Saturday will, of course, be Cotter’s penultimate match as national head coach and both he and Russell’s journey with Scotland began at the same time when the Kiwi handed the then 21-year-old his first cap against the United States in Houston on the 2014 
summer tour.

As the end approaches, Cotter has already cast off a couple of painful records with a first opening win in the championship for 11 years and, more recently, ending a decade of misery against the Welsh.

Notching a first win at Twickenham for 34 years, scooping the Triple Crown and going into the last weekend gunning for the title would be stratospheric in comparison to those two banished bogeys and Russell says the players would love to deliver that for their outgoing coach, though more importantly for 
themselves.

“Vern’s been great. The last three years he’s been here and I’ve only known him as a Scotland coach,” said Russell. “It’s been great the way he’s handled this, knowing he’s leaving but still giving his all and looking to be successful, as we all do. It’s his second last game and it’s a big one so we’ll definitely be going down there to get the win for him… and us as players.”

That said, Russell insisted that the approaching end of the Cotter era was not at the forefront of the players’ minds as they enter the championship’s final fortnight.

“No, I wouldn’t say so. Nobody is acting like that and he’s not either,” he added. “Although we all know Vern is going at the end of this competition no-one is really worrying about that, we’re just focusing on the games we have left.”

Asked if he reckons Cotter has loosened up a bit this season and moved away, slightly, from the “Stern Vern” caricature, Russell broke into a smile and said: “Vern is pretty relaxed. Once you get to know him he’s alright.

“He can be serious at times, obviously, as everyone is. On the training pitch he’s serious but off it he likes to have a bit of a joke.”

Former Clermont coach Cotter may be returning to France with Montpellier but his compatriot Jason O’Halloran will be moving from the national squad to become Glasgow backs coach and Russell praised O’Halloran’s contribution in turning Scotland into one of the most dangerous attacking units in the tournament. “I think he’s been really good,” said the stand-off. 
“Jason coming in has changed a few small things.

“He’s brought a few things from the southern hemisphere to try to bring that into our attack which has been good. I enjoy that and I think the other backs do too. He sees the game in a slightly different way. For myself, next season he’ll be at Glasgow and I look forward to working with him there.”

With England looking to equal the world record with an 18th-straight Test win, not to mention keeping their Grand Slam hopes alive, there has been a bit of back and forth over who will feel most pressure on Saturday but Russell said: “I’d say there is pressure on both teams.

“It’s always going to be like that when it comes to the last couple of games in the comp. For them they’ve done so well to get this far. They’ll be confident. I suppose there are a lot of things on this game, but as a team we’re not really looking at all that. We’re just focusing on this game.”