Aidan Smith: The Russell-Hastings buzz fizzles out for Scotland

Adam Hastings (left) and Finn Russell celebrate at full time. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
Adam Hastings (left) and Finn Russell celebrate at full time. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
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A line from the Beatles song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! comes to mind when watching Scotland these days.

“… And lastly through a hog’s head of real fire.”

Is there no trick that’s too tricky, no bold move they won’t attempt to get the jam-packed crowd – it’s always “House Full” at Murrayfield now – out of their seats?

Last week the stadium rose to a stunning try instantly hailed as a double-flipped-pass classic and by the time it was being recreated with pint tumblers in the bars later that night it was probably involving a triple Salchow as well.

Then, for an encore, they scored a second try from a lineout which was no less memorable for its improvisation, invention and cheek.

Follow that? Gregor Townsend seemed dead set on topping recent flair-packed performances by going with two No 10s against Argentina. Finn Russell was there as usual and alongside him was Adam Hastings.

Technically Hastings – Gavin’s laddie – was at 10 and Russell at inside centre but such was the buzz created by this adventurous selection that we might have expected them to pop up in disguise as each other at different moments to confuse the Pumas. We were sure that Russell would enjoy wearing a lustrous wig mimicking Hastings’ Darcyesque curls.

Would they try to outdo each other for super-long spin passes? Would they get in each other’s way? Would they be like the celestial footballers Xavi and Andres Iniesta and weave some dream-like interplay? Heck, would Scotland go the whole hog’s head and turn into the Barcelona of rugby?

Hastings was perhaps fortunate his first delivery wasn’t intercepted but the ball found its way to Blair Kinghorn whose burst warmed the crowd on a raw, damp afternoon. Undoubtedly some who saw Scotland run in eight tries against Fiji were back for more and the last of them, Russell smartly setting up Hastings for his first for his country, offered a taste of what was hopefully to come from these two.

But it was a slow, uneventful first quarter in slippery conditions with Argentina proving a mean and gnarly outfit, a marked improvement after the thrashing Scotland had handed out to them on the summer tour. Hastings’ grub kicks weren’t coming off and, by contrast, Argentina’s stand-off, Nicolas Sanchez, was causing Stuart Hogg the odd anxious moment with his Garryowens.

Not much had been seen of Russell but, passing Hastings on the way to his new berth, he’d offer a reassuring pat on the gluteus maximus. Then Russell himself was lucky a tapped restart on the 22 didn’t result in a try for the visitors.

Sanchez, the Pumas’ top point scorer, had been given the big build-up by Townsend who called him “maybe the best running 10 in the world”, but he wasn’t showing much either. It wasn’t that kind of game. Finally on the half-hour mark the ball went right along the Scotland backline, Hastings to Russell and beyond, and then Hastings found an opening. But all that resulted was a second Greig Laidlaw penalty to restore Scotland’s lead.

The first half ended as unremarkably as it began, the most impressive sight thus far having been the great clouds of steam generated by the forwards when they hunkered down for a scrum. These were the guys who were hog’s heading the show, what there had been of it, anyway.

Laidlaw, the captain, had stressed beforehand that Scotland shouldn’t get too elaborate. “That is where I come in,” he said, “making sure we don’t over-play and asking questions such as ‘What are we doing?’ and ‘Is that the right play?’” The problems, though, weren’t about poor decision-making and ostentation. The ball just wasn’t pinging around. It wasn’t reaching the wingers; it wasn’t even coming to the twin playmakers very often.

The second half looked set to continue in the same vein. When the ball did pop up it would be fumbled. But then came the most consistent phase of passing with the twin 10s prominent. Russell did well to keep the move going close to the touchline and Hastings surged into a gap. Another penalty resulted, restoring the home side’s narrow advantage. But that would be Hastings’ last involvement, Alex Dunbar replacing him on the hour and Russell reclaiming the stand-off position.

The change didn’t directly produce the try but it followed right away. Laidlaw was the creative, motioning to go left only to swivel right. Hogg fed Sean Maitland who used the skittery surface to slide over the line from some distance back.

Argentina, a team rebuilding, had faded towards the end of recent matches but they finished this one strongly and Scotland had to dig deep to hold on to their advantage. 
It wasn’t a day for flamboyance, rather one for grinding it out. Scotland didn’t leap through any flaming hoops but they won the game.