The prefix ‘veteran’ begins to be lazily added and observers start to wonder just how many more seasons he has in him. In truth, advancements in sports science along with better conditioning and diet have combined to extend the careers of those who look after themselves. Johnny Sexton’s performances for Ireland in their series win in New Zealand in the summer were a sight to behold and the Leinster man had turned 37 by the time of the third Test.
Finn Russell is seven years Sexton’s junior but finds himself at a crossroads. Excluded from Gregor Townsend’s Scotland squad for the Autumn Nations Series, his future at club level is also uncertain, with his contract at Racing 92 due to expire at the end of the season and the Paris club in the throes of a changing their coaching team with speculation rife that Stuart Lancaster is looking at new fly-halves.
Townsend has urged Russell to “respond positively” to his axing from the national side but it must be hard to be positive when the coach who eulogised you as a Lions Test stand-off no longer rates you among the top three 10s in Scotland. The in-form Adam Hastings has effectively replaced Russell in the squad, with Blair Kinghorn retaining his place and Ross Thompson in to cover Kinghorn for the Australia game for which Townsend will select only home-based players.
Hastings has impressed the coach this season and his match-winning drop goal from his own half for Gloucester against London Irish on Friday night suggested a player high on confidence. It is a quality Russell has never lacked, helping propel him to the very top of his sport where his fizzing flat passes and intuitive game management will have club owners waving their cheque books at him next summer. Russell has started all eight of the Paris club’s Top 14 matches in the current campaign but Townsend has urged him to “show form and consistency”. His response yesterday was to kick Racing to victory over Montpellier, the French champions.
Theirs is a long and complex relationship, something that Townsend acknowledged on Wednesday. “We’ve been together at club level, international level and British and Irish Lions. [But] this is a rugby decision,” he said. In the same press briefing, Townsend acknowledged that Russell was “one of the best players to have come out of Scotland” and of that there can be no argument.
Critics will pick holes in some of his performances in last year’s Six Nations but he still excelled in the opening win over England and split open the Welsh defence to create Darcy Graham’s try in Cardiff a week later. Even in Dublin, when he was dropped from the starting XV, he managed to spark Scotland’s attack during a late cameo from the bench. Russell’s game-changing gifts are precious and it would be wretched to think we have seen the last of them in a Scotland jersey. Townsend, of all people, must recognise the danger of writing off Russell too soon.
The coach’s own Test career ended in 2003 in circumstances that were unsatisfactory to say the least. The stand-off was 30 when Matt Williams, newly installed as Scotland coach, called time on Townsend in such a cack-handed manner it caused the Gala man to devote an entire chapter of his autobiography to the episode. “My international career was over, and what’s more, someone who had never done anything for Scottish rugby had ended it,” wrote Townsend after Williams left him with little option but to retire from the Test arena.
It didn’t turn out well for Williams. His reign was a disaster zone which lasted two years, featured a Six Nations whitewash and a total of just three victories in 17 Tests. He was shown the door in 2005 and now earns a crust on Irish TV where he can be found putting the boot into Townsend's Scotland teams.
It’s fair to say there is no love lost between Williams and Townsend but the relationship between Russell and Townsend should be a different thing entirely. This, after all, is a pair who combined to steer Glasgow Warriors to the Pro12 title in 2015 which remains the sole piece of major silverware won by a Scottish pro side in the professional era. There were good times, too, with Scotland, Russell running the show in the freewheeling early days after Townsend left Scotstoun to take over the national side.
Things, of course, unravelled in 2020 when Russell walked out of the Scotland camp ahead of the Six Nations and missed the entire championship. The player said of Townsend, “I didn’t really know him at all”. Townsend sought to build bridges during lockdown and Russell was reintegrated into the squad, with both parties claiming their relationship had been repaired. But Russell was then one of six Scotland players who went on an unauthorised night out in Edinburgh during last season’s Six Nations.
The fly-half found himself on the bench in Dublin while four of the other George Street six - Stuart Hogg, Ali Price, Sam Johnson and Darcy Graham - retained their places in the starting side. Russell was rested for the summer tour of Argentina but there was widespread bewilderment in the rugby world at his exclusion from the autumn Test squad. Can Scotland really afford to leave a player of his quality on the outside looking in when New Zealand visit Murrayfield on November 13? Even more bizarre is the prospect of Russell playing for the Barbarians at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium against an All Blacks XV that same afternoon.
The stand-off turned 30 last month, the same age Townsend was when Williams decided to make his statement decision. It would be a tragedy if Russell’s Test career was ended in the same way.