Allan Massie: Finn Russell would benefit from quiet first quarter’

Finn Russell has not been at his brilliant best for Scotland in the Six Nations so far. Picture: SNS/SRU.
Finn Russell has not been at his brilliant best for Scotland in the Six Nations so far. Picture: SNS/SRU.
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N ormal Six Nations service was resumed last weekend, all matches being won by the home team, even if it was close at both Twickenham and Murrayfield. All the same, England never looked like losing, and though Scotland trailed France for an hour, victory always seemed probable after Sean Maitland scored the first Scottish try.

In an entertaining match the bounce of the ball favoured the visitors, not only because of the way Teddy Thomas’s kick screwed away from Greig Laidlaw covering behind the try-line, but also because Thomas’s first try, certainly a lovely piece of running, was made possible by a wild bouncing pass from one of the French centres, and such passes may disrupt the opposition’s defensive pattern. Which was just what happened, Maitland being drawn in off his wing to attack the bad pass, and leaving space for Thomas when the ball was in fact deftly shipped on to him. As he had shown against Ireland the week before, Thomas doesn’t require much space to score tries. Nobody would suggest that a back should throw out a pass that goes to ground behind its target, but it’s remarkable how often such a pass flummoxes the defence. I have a clear memory of Jim Renwick nipping happily through a gap in the Welsh defence to score after collecting just such a pass at Cardiff in 1982.

Too much has been made of Finn Russell’s poor match. Certainly he missed touch with a couple of penalties, which is hard to forgive, and put another kick out on the full. Three bad mistakes, though in other respects he played well enough, even if not at his brilliant best. He’s a marked man now, and it might be wise for him to play quietly for the first quarter of a match – unless of course the opportunity to do anything but that presents itself. He sometimes makes the game look so easy that any mistakes he makes seem more reprehensible. In this he resembles a batsman like David Gower or, more recently, Ian Bell, and such players tend to be more harshly judged than others of lesser gifts when they make a mistake. Those who have spoken or written harshly about Finn this week must have short memories, autumn matches against New Zealand and Australia apparently forgotten.

Victories, as I keep repeating, are almost always made possible by the performance of the pack, and the Scottish forwards were pretty good on Sunday. The huge French pack failed to secure dominance. The Scottish set-piece was secure, and the carrying of Jonny Gray, Grant Glichrist, Hamish Watson and David Denton when he came on as a replacement was impressive. Some said the French weren’t fit enough and ran out of steam. I thought the steam was taken out of them. They hadn’t looked unfit or short of energy in the second half against Ireland the previous week. They’re a better team than two defeats might indicate – and of course both were by very narrow margins. One has no idea how their season will develop after their late Sunday night cantrips in Edinburgh night-spots, but, until this happened, one would have backed them to beat Italy in Marseille, and make life difficult a fortnight later for England at the Stade de France.

England? Well, we’ve another week to think about England. So far this tournament – and indeed in the autumn – they have been more efficient than brilliant; and I guess it will take efficiency in the form of a secure defence and secure handling, allied to the ability to do the unexpected – and do that brilliantly – for us to have a chance of beating them, even at Murrayfield. They have most of the advantages, chief among them the habit of winning. They may have done only just enough to beat Wales last week, and benefited from that disputed try/non-try, but one felt that if Wales had inched ahead, England would have found a way to pull them back.

As for the try/non-try it seemed to me that all the evidence was inconclusive. Be that as it may, one wonders at World Rugby’s readiness to say that the TMO had got it wrong. Of course they had set a precedent for this by stating (correctly) that Craig Joubert had made a mistake when he penalised Scotland in the last minute against Australia in the World Cup quarter-final, but “no comment” might be the sensible line for World Rugby to take. After all, whether the referee or the TMO got a decision right or wrong doesn’t alter the result. We’ve all moaned about referees –from halfway up the North Stand, I found myself questioning some of John Lacey’s decisions on Sunday. But human error is part of sport, and the truth is that referees are better judges of fact than enthusiastic, and usually biased, fans tend to be.