Six Nations: Scotland's Finn Russell backed as Gregor Townsend explains Rory Darge France role and why it's a big test for Zander Fagerson
Having had two weeks to stew on the disappointment of Cardiff, Gregor Townsend has concluded that a lack of accuracy and faltering discipline were the chief reasons for the loss which has dented Scotland’s Six Nations bid.
The coach knows a further defeat against France at Murrayfield on Saturday would be fatal to his side’s title hopes as they prepare to face a team he rates in the world’s “top two or three”.
The criticism that followed the Wales match was intensified by the heightened expectations which were generated by the win over England on the opening weekend.
Finn Russell, such a pivotal player for Scotland, was singled out in some quarters and his yellow card left Scotland short late in the game. However, the stand-off was unlucky to be sin-binned and was also instrumental in creating Scotland’s try, for Darcy Graham.
Townsend certainly doesn’t hold Russell responsible for the defeat and was pleased to see him bounce back for his club, Racing 92, in their Top 14 win over Bordeaux.
“We were all disappointed with our game in Cardiff,” said the coach. “Finn was back playing last weekend, so it’s great in some ways to be back playing straight after a defeat and a disappointing performance. I thought he played well in Bordeaux and his team had a really good win.
“We have discussions all the time about the game, about his individual game, about our game. And obviously this week playing France those discussions are even more relevant as he’s our one player that plays in France so he knows a lot about the opposition.”
Russell has picked up two yellow cards and a red in his last seven Six Nations matches, more than any other player in the championship over the course of the last two seasons. Townsend has some sympathy, particularly with regards to his dismissal in Paris last season, and believes Russell’s eagerness to attempt an interception leaves him vulnerable to being penalised for a deliberate knock on, as was the case in Cardiff.
“Obviously Finn will be disappointed to have picked up the cards,” said Townsend. “The red card against France, as I think I said straight after the game, I thought was an outrageous decision. It was a hand-off, should never have been a red card.
“I think players realise that when you go for intercepts you do run the risk that if you don’t get it then referees now will give a yellow card. That’s been the case for the last couple of seasons.
“In the past Finn produced some very good intercepts that led to tries so the decision-making around that has to be very clear. But it’s not something that we’re looking at changing because he more often than not makes the right calls on those.”
Townsend has given a vote of confidence to his backline by selecting them again en masse for France but there are three personnel changes in the pack.
Two are injury-enforced but the return of Zander Fagerson as starting tighthead prop in preference to WP Nel was a selection decision and not one the coach took lightly. Fagerson will be joined in the front row by loosehead Pierre Schoeman and Stuart McInally who is retained as starting hooker ahead of George Turner.
“The challenge for them is to deliver,” said Townsend. “Zander in particular has to deliver. He knows that. WP played well down in Cardiff. WP has been playing really well, with the best rugby I’ve seen in him over the last five, six years.”
The biggest changes come in the back row where Rory Darge will start for Scotland for the first time, but at six, not his usual position of seven for Glasgow Warriors. Hamish Watson, understandably, remains Townsend’s go-to openside. Matt Fagerson misses out with the foot injury he picked up in Wales and Magnus Bradbury starts at No 8 after coming off the bench in the opening two matches.
With Jonny Gray also injured, Sam Skinner, who played at six in Cardiff, moves into the second row to partner Grant Gilchrist. The changes means Scotland have lost a bit of height in the lineout and a bit of heft in the scrum but Townsend believes the presence of two natural opensides can cause the visitors problems.
“France have got the biggest pack in the world, so we’re going to be lighter than France no matter who we pick,” he reasoned. “Rory punches above his weight just like Hamish punches above his weight. In terms of the influence both of them can have on the game, technically it’s very, very solid and aggressive defender, both at mauls and off tackles.
“Having two players that maybe are smaller than the opposition could be an advantage to us. And that’s the way we’re looking at it.
“In terms of lineout, we’ve got to find different ways to win ball. We’ve got two very experienced lineout operators in Sam and Grant. Magnus has really stepped up as a lineout option for Edinburgh.”
Scotland have racked up 26 penalties in their opening two fixtures, more than all their Six Nations rivals. According to Townsend, “discipline comes from accuracy”, and you suspect it’s a mantra that has been oft-repeated this week.
"There were a couple of penalties we gave away in defence [against Wales] which we feel we didn't need to give away,” reflected the coach. “You are always going to be under pressure in terms of discipline away from home. We put our heads into contact a couple of times and should have stayed on our feet.
“We know that we've built up a very strong defence, so that's something to work on. But accuracy is a work-on too as accuracy leads to either putting yourself under pressure or the opposition getting a bit of dominance and then your discipline is under even more pressure.”
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