Gregor Townsend has made it clear this autumn that Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings are his front-line stand-offs and only an injury to the latter has opened the door for Russell. Hastings, who started against Fiji on Saturday, has returned to Gloucester after being on the receiving end of a juggernaut tackle from Ratu Leone Rotuisolia which left him with whiplash and a banged-up knee.
Russell has been summoned from Paris to replace him, arriving fashionably late at the Autumn Nations Series party just as the guests of honour roll into town. Scotland haven’t played New Zealand for five years and the current crop may lack the invincibility of their predecessors but there is still an aura around the All Blacks and this is a special fixture on the rugby calendar. Tailor-made for Russell, you might think.
Well, no. Kinghorn remains in pole position to start at Murrayfield after impressing Townsend in the autumn opener against Australia despite missing a last-minute penalty to win the game. “He did a lot of things we wanted him to do well and he led the team in attack,” said the Scotland coach after the 16-15 loss.
Chief among the things Kinghorn did well was his brilliantly improvised try early in the second half when he fly-hacked from deep in his own half and then burned the Aussie defenders with a show of pace that had the crowd on its feet. Russell is fast, but Kinghorn is something else.
“He showed the reason we love him as a player,” Townsend said of the try. “He’s obviously very gifted physically, whether that’s his speed or his ability to run hard through defenders, and that’s something he’s added as a wing or full-back from his previous international career. Having that at 10 is a bonus.”
Kinghorn showed his creative side too, playing in Ollie Smith for Scotland’s opening try with a cleverly delayed pass. But what of Russell and why was he left out in the first place? Rugby reasons, said Townsend; an answer that was greeted with more than a soupcon of scepticism. The pair’s relationship hit the rocks ahead of the 2020 Six Nations but both parties worked hard to repair it during lockdown. Russell’s involvement in an unauthorised night out in March threatened to put it under strain again but Townsend was adamant that the stand-off’s exclusion from his original autumn squad had nothing to do with discipline.
Some will argue that Townsend has had to swallow his pride in recalling Russell but there can be no doubt the player has risen to the challenge. The coach called on Russell to show form and consistency and he has done exactly that, inspiring Racing 92 to their best run of the season, winning three from three and weighing in with 57 points. On Saturday, against Perpignan, he came on at half-time with Racing trailing 14-13 and helped turn the game in their favour, weighing in with a try, four conversions and a penalty as the Paris side won 44-20.
Super-sub might not be the title he craves but it is likely to be the role awaiting him at Murrayfield this weekend.