Six Nations: Why dropping Finn Russell would not be sensible move for Scotland - Allan Massie

The fortnight between the third and fourth rounds of the Six Nations lets us catch our breath and consider how things stand.

The answer from a Scottish point of view is of course “not where we had hoped we would be.” Wales, having like us suffered two defeats, may be of the same opinion. So indeed may England, even though they have followed their defeat at Murrayfield with wins against Italy and Wales.

Nevertheless, the Welsh match can’t give them much encouragement. It was a narrow victory, but not a glorious one. To win by three points at Twickenham must be disappointing, all the more because they led 12-0 at half-time, and then conceded three tries while scoring only one themselves. They will surely have to play much better to beat Ireland at Twickenham next week, and very much better to win in the Stade de France on the last day of the tournament.

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Though we lost heavily to France, this was in some ways less disappointing than the defeat in Cardiff, simply because France are a much better team than Wales. Nevertheless brilliant as Antoine Dupont and his musketeers were last Saturday, the margin of their victory was made possible by our tendency to miss tackles and concede stupid penalties, some like the one given against Zander Fagerson for entering a maul from the side, when we were under no great pressure.

Finn Russell in action for Scotland during the Six Nations defeat to France at BT Murrayfield. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Then it was irritating that, having made a wretched start and fallen well behind on the score card, we commendably recovered and indeed dominated the second quarter of the match, only to see our chance of making at least a close thing of it vanish in a couple of minutes. There was then the try we threw away when we had at least a three-to-one in the French 22 with the goal-line in sight and Chris Harris threw out a wildly inaccurate pass just beyond Stuart Hogg’s reach. A short pass to Ali Price and a quick transfer to Hogg would surely have given us a try. If we had then fielded the restart we would, despite the dreadful start, have gone into the dressing-room with tails up and hopes high. As it was... but you know what followed.

Chris Harris has been a tower of strength in the organisation of our defence which, till last Saturday, has been very good for a couple of years now. But he is less effective in attack. I doubt if either Huw Jones, now well out of favour and not starting regularly for Harlequins, or Mark Bennett, in splendid form for Edinburgh, would have butchered that chance. But would either of them match Harris’ defensive skill and intelligence? None of the three mentioned has the combination of skills in attack and defence of Ireland’s number 13, Garry Ringrose. But then no centre in England or Wales has that either.

Finn Russell was lacklustre against both Wales and France. We have come to expect our magician to deliver in every match and it is all the more noticeable when he fails to do so because he keeps trying to make things happen and doesn’t retreat into unambitious play-safe mode. So there are already mutterings about dropping him to the bench. There are two reasons why this doesn’t seem sensible, especially given that our next match is in Rome. First, this offers him a good chance to recover his touch.

Second, if a replacement – Adam Hastings or Blair Kinghorn – shone against Italy, what would this say about our prospects in Dublin a week later?

There’s little doubt we have missed Jamie Ritchie in the last two matches, his intelligence and judgement at the breakdown being second to none. On the other hand, his replacement Rory Darge was our best player against France. One hesitates to lavish praise on a player at the start of his international career, but he looked the real thing, even outshining Hamish Watson who hasn’t yet quite been at his best this tournament. It may be that we also missed Matt Fagerson, man of the match in the Calcutta Cup. Nevertheless his replacement Magnus Bradbury had his moments last Saturday.

There is no shame in being beaten by a team as good as this French one. Nevertheless the extent to which we contributed to our defeat, and the scale of it, was depressing and worrying. A couple of the French tries were on the soft side and one resulted from a wicked bounce of the ball, but conceding six tries felt like a sad return to dark days. Rome and Dublin will have to be better if this tournament isn’t going to dampen our spirits. It’s no longer enough just to beat England.

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