Grand Slam hero Craig Chalmers believes it is time for a third party to get involved in the Gregor Townsend-Finn Russell rift “banging heads together” to ensure the dispiriting impasse which is looming over a stuttering Six Nations campaign is dealt with and put to bed as swiftly as possible.
Townsend responded yesterday to the explosive Sunday newspaper interview in which Russell launched a stinging attack on the Scotland head coach, claiming he had “no relationship” with him and felt there was a lack of “control, respect and trust, on and off the pitch”.
The coach made clear that there could be no exceptions to team standards for one player, even if they perhaps enjoy a different environment at their club, which in Russell’s case is French giant Racing 92 of Paris. His exit from the camp two weeks before the opener against Ireland in Dublin was sparked by a row over drinking at the team hotel.
Former stand-off Chalmers, who won 60 Scotland caps and played one Test for the British and Irish Lions in a career which was defined by his role in the famous 1990 Grand Slam decider win over England at Murrayfield, believes the situation has gone way beyond the point at which someone should have got involved to build bridges between coach and star playmaker.
“It’s a situation where we’ve got our best player, or one of our best players, a world-class talent, not playing, which is not good,” said the 51-year-old, pictured.
“There’s always two sides to every story, sometimes three or four. I can see a lot of Finn’s points. It’s clearly been building up for a period of time and there has been hints but I was surprised to see just how bad the relationship was.”
Chalmers jousted with Townsend for the Scotland jersey a fair bit in the mid-1990s. “He was a better centre in my opinion,” joked the Melrose man, who admitted that he and the Gala maverick are “not best buddies”.
He always admired him as a player, though, feels the competition brought the best out of each other and is full of praise for Townsend’s achievements as a coach.
“They are quite similar in terms of the way Finn plays and Gregor used to play and maybe that is the problem,” continued Chalmers. “I don’t know if Gregor has been trying to constrict what Finn’s trying to do in the game, I’m really not sure.
“But this drinking thing, having one pint more should never have led us to where we’ve got to. It should have been dealt with in-house.
“I’m a great fan of Stuart Hogg and I’m sure he will be a great captain but I truly believe if Greig Laidlaw [the former skipper and scrum-half who retired from Test rugby after the World Cup] had been there this might not have happened. He would have put his arm around him and said, ‘okay Finn, let’s have one more beer, have a chat then get yourself to bed’.
“Back in my day, if Fin Calder told me it was time to stop, I wouldn’t have argued with him and would be straight up to my room.”
The overriding feeling for Chalmers is sadness that Scotland, who don’t exactly churn out world-class talents like Russell on a production line, are being denied one of their most potent weapons in a Six Nations campaign which is already wobbling after two, albeit narrow, defeats to Ireland and England.
“We should have had our first-choice No 10 playing in these two games, though I must say Adam Hastings has done very well, with a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” said Chalmers.
“But Finn should have been playing. If he feels he can’t work within the parallels and boundaries the players have set, then we’re not going to see him for a while. Because Gregor’s not going to be going anywhere soon, unless told to, he’s contracted until next year.
“It’s a bit of a stalemate and I just think somebody should be in there talking to these guys, banging their heads together and getting this sorted. For everybody’s sake. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in.”
Chalmers feels this could be the perfect moment for new SRU director of rugby Jim Mallinder, pictured right, the former Northampton Saints coach who recently took on the post vacated by Scott Johnson, to prove his worth.
“It needs to be sorted out and I mean this week,” said Chalmers. “Jim Mallinder has come in as director of rugby and he needs to get in there and mediate this. He’s been around for a while and what better way for him to make a mark in the job by getting this sorted, getting Finn possibly back involved for the Italy game and giving the country the boost it needs right now to get the result over there we badly need.”
Chalmers believes there is also a case for Townsend to get on a plane to Paris for emergency talks with the player, although makes clear that he doesn’t view this as a one-way street.
“Maybe Finn has got to eat a bit of humble pie as well. You have to bend a bit yourself in situations like this or they are never resolved. They are both strong personalities.
“I just can’t believe it’s got so bad. As a stand-off himself, although I always say he was a better centre, Gregor knows what it’s about. He needs to have that guy on his side, he’s one of your main men.
“You have little arguments. Listen, the best players always challenge the coaches. The people who make the decisions on the pitch do that because they think they can do things differently and that’s the way it’s always going to be.
“If that stops, then you’re not the coach you should be and you’re not the player you should be if you’re not challenging. If you’re just submissive, told what to do and accepting it, I wouldn’t want to be in that kind of environment.
“If Finn has got the personality to stand up and make his voice heard that’s healthy, but it seems to have now got to a stage where it’s not healthy and it’s affecting the whole team and we can’t let it rumble on for too much longer.”