Allan Massie: Finn Russell can still have major Scotland contribution - but Gregor Townsend has never lacked boldness
Now in the last round of the Six Nations 2022 coach Townsend has relegated Russell to the bench. Given that professional rugby is now a 23-man game, it would be wrong to say Finn has been dropped, for, depending how things go, he may well have an important part to play in at least the last quarter of the match. Nevertheless, even though he hasn’t been at his magical best this tournament, it’s a bold move. But then Gregor has never lacked boldness either as player or coach.
Kinghorn has played most of his rugby at full-back or on the wing, but, on taking over as head coach at Edinburgh this season, Mike Blair immediately made him his first-choice fly-half and the revival of Edinburgh’s back-play has owed much to Kinghorn’s hard running and adroit distribution. He will ask different questions of the Irish mid-field defence, for example by running hard at Jonny Sexton’s outside shoulder. The switch may have Ireland’s Andy Farrell making some adjustments to his defensive alignment.
Of course, any change at number 10 is usually of minor importance if your forwards aren’t providing the backs with quick secure go-forward ball, and there is no team in the tournament better than Ireland at preventing their opponents from getting this. Moreover, Scotland’s performance at the breakdown has been disappointing this season. Fielding two 7s in Hamish Watson and Rory Darge worked quite well against Italy, but Ireland pose different problems, and Scotland have badly missed Jamie Ritchie since he was injured in the England match.
I doubt if many neutrals give Scotland much of a chance today. Our record against Ireland has been wretched for years, and Ireland have mostly been very good this season. They came quite close to winning in Paris and, though they took some time to subdue a defiant 14-man England last week, they eventually won comfortably, with four tries to none, and few visiting teams do that at Twickenham.
Andy Farrell, a coach who prefers to let his team do the talking for him, has built on the structure bequeathed him by Joe Schmidt, and Ireland are now an impressively efficient side in both defence and attack. It’s difficult to point a finger and say “that’s where there is weakness”, though, in this context, seeing Ireland demolished by England in the set scrum last week was astonishing.
Ireland have now won the last six matches against us, and we haven’t won in Ireland since 2010 a far cry from the 1990s when we were dominant. Still the two Six Nations games have been close and there is no reason for us to feel inferior. Ireland still have a chance of winning the title though this depends on England winning in Paris and is therefore out of their hands. Still victory would give them the Triple Crown and, though this is less significant that it was in the days when there was no trophy and the Triple Crown was regularly described as “mythical”, pressure is perhaps more on them today.
Scotland’s position is simple. Defeat would mean that this has been a disappointing campaign, victory a sort of redemption. No match in the Six Nations should ever be called “meaningless”, and there’s a good deal of meaning for both teams in today’s. Given fine weather and a dry ball it may well prove a classic contest for both are capable of scoring spectacular tries. If our judgement at the breakdown is better than it has been, we’ll avoid conceding penalties and hugely improve our chance of winning. It would be nice to see both teams regarding the set scrum as a means of wining good ball rather than penalties, but this may be too much to hope for. If the superiority of Leinster in the club championship gives Ireland a degree of confidence that our home-based players may lack, well, that should serve as a challenge. With Jonny Gray back for us and James Ryan out of the Irish team there should surely be at worst equality at the line-out, and both teams have a try-scoring back three. Obviously Ireland deservedly start favourites, but, if it’s not a 50-50 game, it’s no worse than a 49-51 match.