The stand-off, left out of Gregor Townsend’s original squad, was involved in all eight tries as the home side racked up a record score over Argentina at Murrayfield. A half-century of points against a team who had won at Twickenham two weeks previously was a highly impressive way to finish a campaign that yielded two wins and two defeats but from which Scotland emerge with more pluses than minuses. They should have beaten Australia (with an entirely home-based side), they did beat Fiji, played with great verve and courage in losing to New Zealand and the 52-29 win over the Pumas had a bit of everything.
Russell was outstanding on Saturday, revelling in the extra space afforded him by Argentina’s indiscipline. At one stage the South Americans were down to 12 men, although they still managed to score a try against a full complement of Scots.
Townsend made a point after the game of flagging up Russell’s oft-overlooked defensive contribution. For all the feints, delayed passes and probing little kicks, the stand-off also put in three thumping tackles. But it was his ability to fire Scotland’s attack that had the 61,000-plus crowd roaring its approval. All eight tries were scored by the backs outside of Russell, as telling a statistic as you could wish for.
The Racing 92 playmaker looks leaner than last season and seemed to revel in his starring role after his initial exclusion. An alternative narrative is being proposed in some quarters that being left out fired up Russell on his return but it’s important to remember that he was only called up ahead of the New Zealand game because Adam Hastings was injured against Fiji.
In words that may now haunt him, Townsend had challenged Russell to show “form and consistency” when he named Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Ross Thompson as the three stand-offs in his original autumn squad. The 30-year-old duly did so, sparking a Racing revival and producing performances the Scotland coach could not ignore. Russell is now the leading points scorer in this season’s Top 14.
Townsend demurred when asked if it had been a mistake to leave him out of the original squad or an inspired piece of man management.
“We’ll let you guys decide that,” said the coach. “Over the last few weeks he’s got into his best form and that can be easier to do at your club team. But to be able to do it against New Zealand and again on Saturday, it’s great for us. It’s been a real positive he’s come in and played so well. The work he puts in now, in defence, you saw him make three tackles in a row at one stage, working hard to get back at kicks, working to get on ball more, that can only be a good thing if your best and most creative players are getting more touches in a game.”
Russell will now return to Paris to be with his partner, Emma Canning, who is due to give birth to their first child. Asked how he expected fatherhood to effect the fly-half, Townsend said: “I think it could change his personality, he’s talked about changes already, there’s a big change in life when your partner is at home a lot and you’re preparing for a baby. I'm sure the next change will be bigger but they’re definitely ready for that, him and Emma. For him to be able to do what he’s done for the last two weeks ... in really good physical shape which shows how hard he’s been working to bring out the best in his career.”
Russell took control quickly against Argentina, playing in Sione Tuipulotu for the game’s opening try with a cleverly delayed offload. The visitors responded with a try from Jeronimo de la Fuente but the dismissal of flanker Marcos Kremer shortly afterwards for a dangerous clear-out in which he caught Jamie Ritchie on the head meant the Pumas had to play short-handed for over an hour. Russell repeated his delaying tactics to set up Duhan van der Merwe for Scotland’s second try, then produced a fine break in the build-up to the first of Darcy Graham’s treble. Argentina stayed in touch and Matias Alemanno’s try just before half-time reduced Scotland’s lead to 19-15 at the turn.
Graham nabbed his second early in the second half after a show and go by Russell and good work by Stuart Hogg before yellow cards inside a minute for both Argentina locks, Alemanno and Tomas Lavinini, threatened to turn it into a procession, only for the Pumas’ 12 men to stun the Scots with a brilliant breakaway score by Emiliano Boffelli. Tuipulotu eventually made Scotland’s three-man numerical advantage count with his second try, before an all-out brawl saw Ritchie and Thomas Gallo sent to the sin-bin.
Russell dinked though a lovely left-footed kick for substitute Cameron Redpath to score and then Hogg got the score his performance deserved. Graham completed his hat-trick in the corner after good work by Russell and Kinghorn but there was still time for Argentina to score a final try through Ignacio Ruiz and for Tuipulotu to be yellow carded for a tip-tackle.
It was a helter-skelter finale to a campaign which got better the longer it went on for Scotland. Their inability to hold on to leads remains a concern, with both Australia and New Zealand able to turn losing positions into victories at Murrayfield. Next up is England at Twickenham in the opening game of the 2023 Six Nations, and a chance for Scotland to make it a hat-trick of victories over the Auld Enemy for the first time in over 50 years. With Russell on this form, anything is possible.