International stand-offs have a lot of data to process and not much time to do it, so any help they can get in weighing up their on-field options can only make their lives easier, which is one reason current Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has been reluctant to drop Peter Horne from his starting line-up. Horne plays alongside Finn Russell at Glasgow, he knows the stand-off as well as anyone and, along with Greig Laidlaw on his inside, acts as another pair of ears and eyes for Russell on the pitch.
Not so tomorrow, when Nick Grigg starts in the No 12 jersey against Italy in Rome. He hails from the same club but the Kiwi is a very different player and relatively new to the international scene. This will be his fourth cap and his first Six Nations start. So, tomorrow, Russell revealed, the information would be flowing in the opposite direction.
“I will be on to him [Grigg] all week and chatting to him a lot,” said Russell when quizzed about his new midfield partner. “He has not played that much for Scotland yet but having Horney there to guide him will help him as well (Horne remains in the match day squad). They are different players but are good at what they do. Nick will be good this weekend carrying the ball and in defence.
“He is a good player, a very good ball carrier. He is great to have outside me. He is a bit like a pinball. He can bounce off a few boys make yards which is great to have.
“In defence he is great at the low chop. Comparing to him to Horney he is a different player. Horney’s distribution is a bit better. It helps me having Horney as a 10/12 outside me but in terms of managing the game with Nick coming in he will bring in physicality, ball carrying and tackling. He will be great for us this weekend.”
In truth, Russell should enjoy himself tomorrow even if the forecast is unseasonably wet. The Italian defence is more passive than some that Scotland have already met. England winger Anthony Watson proved that you can go around the outside of it, Wales proved you can run through the middle of it and Ireland sliced them open every way imaginable – not that Russell is having any of it.
“It is always a tough game,” insists the Scotland stand-off. “We need to stick to our structures to break them down. They put teams under a lot of pressure, they score some great tries. It is a good game against them. Two years ago it was nice and sunny over there. It is meant to be wet this time. Both teams play an open style of rugby and it is a good fun game to play in.
“We have not thought of the last four games really and are just focusing on this game now. We have to play at our best to beat them and stick to our structures. We can’t afford to make silly mistakes against them. They are an international team. They are a dangerous team in defence and attack. They come out with different strategies to catch you off guard. We need to be ready for anything as well as playing our best to take them on and beat them.”
Certainly last year at Twickenham Italy sprung a major surprise when they studied the small print in rugby’s rule book and came up with the idea of the no-ruck breakdown. The men in white were totally bamboozled and who can forget Romain Poite’s “I am a referee, not a coach,” response when James Haskell asked him what to do about it. Yet England still finished with a 36-15 bonus-point victory.
This season, a scratch Wales side did almost nothing with the ball in the first half against Italy but the pressure of their defence still led to two tries before the break and they scored another three in the second half after a hurry-up from coach Warren Gatland. This Italy team can score tries, they managed two against England and three against Ireland but, by throwing the ball about, they risk getting picked off by Scotland’s turnover specialists and, on all available evidence, Italy’s defence will concede enough space to keep Russell and Co in clover.
“The way the team has played against Italy the last couple of times has been great,” added Russell. “We have been really up for the game. This is the last game of the tournament and we want to finish on a high. Last year we managed to beat Italy and there is a lot of things pushing us to play at our best.
“We build going along in this tournament, we will be fired up into this game and hopefully have the best game of the tournament.”
If they do, the Azzurri should find them too hot to handle.