Finn Russell was ‘two hours away’ from being fit to face Italy

Gregor Townsend has revealed that Finn Russell was “two hours away” from being fit to face Italy in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations match at BT Murrayfield.

Stuart Hogg, left, will replace Finn Russell at stand-off for Scotland against Italy on Saturday. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Stuart Hogg, left, will replace Finn Russell at stand-off for Scotland against Italy on Saturday. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

The stand-off’s absence from the game at BT Murrayfield means that Stuart Hogg will wear the No 10 jersey.

The Scotland captain and full-back deputised for Russell during the final 20 minutes of last Sunday’s home defeat by Ireland when the Racing 92 playmaker went off with a head knock.

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Townsend said after the match that Russell had suffered a concussion but the Scotland coach explained yesterday that the player has been symptom free since Sunday night and would likely have been fit to face Italy if the match had kicked off later than its allocated 2.15pm slot on Saturday.

“He was probably two hours away,” said Townsend. “Because of the protocols - with our [Ireland] game kicking off later than this weekend - the six days was actually less than six days.

“You can make it technically on a six-day turnaround if you are within the timescale. Finn has had no symptoms since Sunday evening and he has gone through all the various stages, which included training with us today. He will do contact tomorrow and be available after Saturday.”

It means Russell will be fit to face France in Paris in Scotland’s final Six Nations match on Friday, March 26.

In the meantime, with second-choice No 10 Adam Hastings suspended, Hogg takes on the fly-half’s role, starting a match for Scotland in that position for the first time.

Scrum-half Scott Steele will make his first Scotland start after three appearances as a substitute.

To facilitate the change, Sean Maitland is moved from the wing to full-back, with Darcy Graham picked in the right-wing berth vacated by Maitland.

Townsend could have left the back three alone and promoted Jaco van der Walt to stand-off but has opted instead to name the Edinburgh man among the replacements.

“We know having Jaco on the bench gives us security, let’s say, in that he’s someone playing regularly at 10, goal kicker, a good defender,” said the coach.

“It was a close decision but we feel this is a good time now for Stuart to play longer at 10, see if that is an option when we have to put a squad together, whether he covers 10 or we have Jaco or Adam on the bench.”

Huw Jones will start for Scotland against Italy at outside centre after impressing as a sub with a try against Ireland.

Hogg played some of his schoolboy rugby at stand-off and started a game for the British & Irish Lions at 10 on their tour of Australia but that was in 2013.

Nevertheless, Townsend is prepared to hand Hogg the playmaker’s role against an Italy side who have not won a Six Nations match since they beat Scotland in Edinburgh six years ago.

“I think Stuart is one of the best full-backs in the world,” said the coach. “Full-back is his position but given his experience, his leadership, his ability and all-round skill-set, we see him being able to cover other positions as required.”

In an unusual looking halfback partnership, he is paired with the Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele, with Ali Price dropping to the bench, bringing to an end a run of 12 consecutive Scotland starts for the Glasgow Warriors No 9.

It will be Steele’s full debut for the national side, with his three previous appearances having been as a substitute which included outings as emergency cover at wing and flanker.

“Scott has come into our squad and come off the bench on three occasions, but only once at scrum-half and that performance was excellent down at Twickenham when he really helped control those last 10-15 minutes,” said Townsend of the Calcutta Cup victory last month.

“We believe this is the right time for him to get that opportunity and he’s worked hard for it. His work-rate, defensive attributes and all-round skills should see him go well.”

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Townsend’s team selection is made with one eye on the final Six Nations match against France which has been confirmed for next Friday. In trying to juggle his resources he is hoping the nine changes he has made will not cause too much disruption.

Another regular pick, Chris Harris, also drops to the bench to allow Huw Jones to start at outside centre following his try-scoring appearance as a substitute against the Irish.

“Huw has earned his right by his performances at 13 for Glasgow and his impact off the bench. We’re also managing resources a bit there, with Chris having played a lot of rugby for us.”

Scotland’s lineout malfunctioned against Ireland to the extent that the home side lost six from eight on their own throw. The selection, therefore, of Dave Cherry ahead of George Turner at hooker is perhaps not the biggest surprise. It’s Cherry’s first start for Scotland after impressive cameos off the bench against England, Wales and Ireland.

“It’s around managing our squad and also Dave earning that right to start,” said Townsend. “He’s been playing really well for Edinburgh. He’s not had a huge amount of minutes for us but when he’s come on he’s defended well, been accurate in attack and set-piece.

“The lineout didn’t function well at the weekend, we know that but there are a number of reasons for that, one being the opposition, another being the combinations and calls and some of it was just down to poor accuracy from those involved.

“George [Turner] has had a very good season and we expect him to come off the bench but we have to manage our squad as best we can when we are likely to be facing three Test matches in three weeks.”

The other changes in the pack see the return of tighthead Zander Fagerson from suspension in place of WP Nel and a new second-row combination, with Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist replacing the injured Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray.

Townsend is hopeful Gray will be fit for the France game after damaging his shoulder against Ireland.

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