The Scotland coach provoked an outcry by leaving Russell, 30, out of his squad for last year’s Autumn Nations Series, only recalling him when Adam Hastings suffered an injury in the second game, against Fiji. Townsend had challenged the Racing 92 fly-half to show “form and consistency” and he responded with excellent performances against New Zealand and Argentina, convincing the coach that he is once again the player to build his team around in a World Cup year.
The coach also praised Russell’s maturity and leadership skills and suggested there was too much social media focus on other aspects of the player’s life. “People change throughout their rugby careers and their lives,” said Townsend at the media launch of the Guinness Six Nations in London. “You’re a different person at 20, 21 years old than you are at 30. Finn has had changes in life – he just became a dad for the first time.
“In the position he plays you’ve got to take a big role in the leadership of the game, and that requires work and preparation – and Finn does that. Maybe it’s something that people here or on social media don’t focus on enough. He’s one of the most skilful players to ever play the game – not just playing now, but to ever play the game. What he can do with his passing, his decision-making, his kicking game… You’ve got to practise a lot, watch rugby, and experience rugby, to know when to pull the trigger. And there’s a lot of discipline that has to go into it, to make the decision whether to offload or to kick.”
Russell, who will turn 31 during the Rugby World Cup in the autumn, is in his fifth season in Paris with Racing 92 but has agreed a deal to join Bath in the summer. He has 65 Scotland caps and is on course to play in his third World Cup but Townsend believes the best may be yet to come. “He’s coming into his prime years,” said the coach. “He’s coming into that time where physically you’re still able to compete and do what you want to do, but you have that knowledge of ten years playing at No 10 and are aware of what a defence might look like after two or three phases. So it’s a great opportunity for him – this championship, and obviously the World Cup too.”
Of course, Townsend and Russell have not always seen eye to eye. The stand-off walked out of the Scotland camp on the eve of the 2020 Six Nations and played no part in the championship following “a breach of team protocol”. Townsend sought to build bridges with the player during lockdown and Russell returned to the fold later that year. Asked about the current state of their relationship, the coach smiled: “It’s all sweetness and light! Finn was outstanding in the autumn in how he played. It was probably the best he’d played for Scotland in two or three years. He played at a really high level against New Zealand and gave an even better performance against Argentina.
“He was great around the group, like he always is. He’s very good to work with. He’s now at a level of experience where he understands the game and what defences are going to do. Physically, he’s in really good shape too. He had a week off for Racing over Christmas which I think will help him during the Six Nations because he does play a lot of rugby over in France. He’ll be looking forward to the championship like we are.”
Russell has orchestrated Scotland’s attack for almost a decade, helping shape the national side’s transformation from a reliance on a kicking fly-half to a more exciting style but Townsend believes the player also deserves great credit for instilling his competitive instincts into the side. “He’s obviously played for us in a number of games and part of the reason we’ve done well is our accuracy and a lot of that is led through your 10,” said Townsend. “Your 10 gets the most catches of anybody in the team so he’s going to lead the attack, and he’s done that really well. He’s a very competitive player, Finn, and this doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s a laid back person and he’s even laid back on the field, but he’s competitive, and maybe the England game makes him even more competitive and he tackles harder.” Scotland will open their Six Nations campaign at Twickenham on February 4, a venue at which they have not lost since 2017.
Jamie Ritchie, the Scotland captain, was similarly effusive in his praise of Russell, noting his impact on the younger players in his squad, highlighting his dedication and dispelling any suggestion that he was some sort of troublemaker. “He’s not a confrontational character, he’s not a controversial character,” said Ritchie. “He’s a great person to have around, a great person for the young guys to learn from, for us all to learn from, in fact. He’s really diligent in and around his analysis, he’s always on his laptop watching training back and watching the opposition we’ve got coming up, looking for opportunities. The stuff you see at the weekends doesn’t happen by accident. He’s a great guy for us to have around the squad.”