‘I’ve reflected on what I could have done better with Finn’ - Gregor Townsend used lockdown to rebuild relationship with Russell

Gregor Townsend is big on self-improvement. His eagerness to learn from other sports and other countries has been well documented.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.

So when the Scotland coach spoke yesterday about the schism with Finn Russell which rocked Scottish rugby to its core earlier this year it was perhaps not surprising to hear that he hopes to have learned from the whole unseemly business.

Russell is back in the Scotland squad after mending fences with Townsend, with both parties seemingly taking advantage of lockdown to rebuild their relationship.

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Asked if the rift with Russell had changed him, Townsend admitted the long lay-off had given him pause to consider some of his actions.

“It has been a very good time for learning,” he said. “The lockdown started and life changed a lot at the end of the Six Nations. I’ve certainly reflected on the events and what I could have done better with Finn and in my role as a coach.

“I’ve had plenty of time to learn off others during that period. You learn from your experiences. As a coach you make lots of mistakes throughout the season so it has been a time to put all of that into the memory banks and make sure you become a better coach for the experience.”

The rift developed between the stand-off and the head coach on the eve of the Six Nations in January.

The fly-half was named in the squad for the opener against Ireland but then left camp after “a breach of team protocol”.

Finn Russell has guided Racing 92 to the Heinken Champions Cup final.Finn Russell has guided Racing 92 to the Heinken Champions Cup final.
Finn Russell has guided Racing 92 to the Heinken Champions Cup final.

It was alleged that the Racing 92 playmaker was challenged over alcohol consumption after checking into the Scotland hotel in Edinburgh on the Sunday before the match.

He walked out and did not show up for training on Monday morning. He was subsequently told by Townsend he would not be considered for selection in Dublin.

Scotland lost in Ireland, and in their next game at home to England, and the clamour for Russell’s return grew and grew.

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The player, meanwhile, said that he “hardly knew” Townsend, despite working with him for eight years. “We’ve not got a personal relationship,” he said in an interview.

The coach appears to have taken his comments on board and reached out to the Racing 92 playmaker.

“We’re connecting much more,” said Townsend. “We’ve been in regular conversation.”

Scotland won their next two Six Nations games, against Italy and France, before coronavirus intervened and led to the postponement of their final game against Wales in Cardiff on the eve of the match.

It has been rescheduled for Llanelli on 31 October, and Russell is in the frame to play, if he can dislodge Adam Hastings from the No 10 jersey.

The Glasgow stand-off started all four Six Nations games, scoring 38 points and impressing Townsend.

“We played some good rugby with Adam at 10 in the Six Nations,” said the coach. “I thought he started the tournament in great form in Dublin and had a very mature performance in our last game against France. There is very good competition there. I thought he played well [in Glasgow’s win over Scarlets on Sunday] and the defence part of his game has really come to the fore in the past two weeks.

“That’s good for us as coaches. We haven’t finalised our thoughts around who will start against Georgia and who might start against Wales. Finn has an opportunity this week to play in a very big game and we will see what happens once we get through this weekend.”

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The big game Townsend refers to is the Heineken Champions Cup final on Saturday evening when Racing 92 take on an Exeter Chiefs side featuring Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner.

It means Russell won’t join up with Scotland until next week, with Exeter's tartan trio arriving seven days after that due to their involvement in the English Premiership final with Wasps on 24 October.

Scotland kick off their autumn programme the night before against Georgia at BT Murrayfield, before facing Wales eight days later.

They then have a free weekend before the Autumn Nations Cup begins with a match in Italy followed by home games against France and Fiji.

Townsend has named an expanded 40-man squad with three uncapped players, including South African duo Duhan van der Merwe and Oli Kebble who qualify on residency grounds. The coach has no qualms about exploiting this rule.

“We’ve got a mix of people, people that were brought up in Scotland, people who were brought up in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa,” he said. “It’s a diverse group and they’re all very keen to wear that thistle and play for their country.

“Oli Kebble has started the season very well for Glasgow. Duhan van der Merwe has added to the great form he has shown over the last couple of seasons for Edinburgh. And Scott Steele [the third uncapped player] has really kicked on this summer, from not having a contract when lockdown started to getting an opportunity with Harlequins.

“He has got himself into great condition and has played really well and has started on a number of occasions for Harlequins.”

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Notable absentees include centre Matt Scott (“It was a close decision,” said Townsend), prop Allan Dell (“hasn't played that much rugby for London Irish since the restart”) and flanker Magnus Bradbury, who suffered a head knock in Edinburgh’s season opener and is a victim of the high level of competition in the back row.

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