EDINBURGH — When the Calcutta Cup match kicks off on Saturday, one of Scotland’s two best players, Finn Russell, will be sat watching in Paris. He’s not injured.
Gregor Townsend, historically Scotland’s greatest ever fly-half and current coach, will select Adam Hastings for their Test against England. Hastings is no mean replacement, but Russell would walk into most teams in world rugby.
The stand-off remains resolute between Scotland’s two best-known stand-offs. It’s not pistols at dawn level of animosity, but it has been an unwanted and ugly subplot to the start of the Six Nations.
Russell is one of the game’s best No. 10s. He falls into the mercurial, maverick bracket — check out his try where he nutmegged his Munster opponent en route to scoring. If he has a conservative or a more extravagant option in front of him, then the balance of probability means he will go for the outlandish, but only if it makes sense; he’s not a reckless fly-half.
The current impasse between Townsend and Russell revolves around control and their system, multiple sources have told ESPN.
The flashpoint occurred on the evening of Jan. 19. Russell had just played for his club side Racing 92 against Saracens and traveled north to the team’s base in Edinburgh as they prepared to fly out to Spain for their pre-Six Nations camp. Russell had a beer or two, and ignored requests from management and other players to stop drinking. He left the hotel to spend the night at his parents’ house in Stirling.
He missed the following day’s training and after meeting Townsend he was handed a one-match ban — ruling him out of their Six Nations opener versus Ireland in Dublin. It looked like there might be a thaw in the frosty relations. But later in the week Russell returned to Paris. The SRU described it all as a “breach of team protocol”.
It descended into an ugly clash between Scotland’s best player and the team’s collective standards and expectations. Andy Nicol, former Scotland captain, described it as a “sledgehammer to everyone” in his column for the Daily Mail. “I’m a huge fan of Russell — but I’m also a massive fan of team ethos and protocol,” Nicol wrote. “You can be a maverick within a team environment. He has those characteristics, but he has to stay within the parameters set down.”
The roots of the Russell-Townsend stand-off are ambiguous, but looking at events and facts in the public domain, you can piece together your own understanding. In May 2017, Russell’s father, Keith, was sacked from his role as director of domestic rugby by the Scottish Rugby Union. He would later win an unfair dismissal claim against the SRU. Finn announced he was leaving Glasgow to sign for Racing in November 2017.
Fast-forward a couple of years and Russell and Townsend had a bustup in the England versus Scotland match at Twickenham. Scotland were 31-7 down at half time. They put together a remarkable comeback to lead 38-31, only to draw 38 apiece. After the game, Russell revealed he argued against Townsend’s gameplan — Scotland’s comeback suggests Russell had a point.
“I actually had an argument with Gregor,” Russell said last March. “I said to him: ‘You’re telling us to kick and when we kick, they just run it back and cut us open, and when we run it, they’re just hitting us behind the gain line and winning the ball back.’
“Second half, we just came out with nothing to lose, played our rugby, kicked out of our half and scored some great tries. We played good Scottish rugby.”
There was a touch of insurgence, but equally, coaches openly say how they want the team to take as much control as possible. Townsend is described as “autocratic” by one source, and Russell “doesn’t like being in a controlled environment”. There are egos on both sides of this.
Relations were unlikely to have improved when Scotland crashed out of the World Cup in the pool stages. I remember watching Russell against Japan; he played like a man possessed, but also tried to do everything on his own. His admirable efforts were in vain. That viral video of Russell and Greig Laidlaw singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ after Scotland’s win over England in 2018 seems to be from a different life.
As Scotland continued their preparations for Ireland, Russell impressed for Racing 92 on Jan. 25 in their 27-0 win at Castres. After the match, he was pictured topless and flexing in a team photo. He told the press he was only a phone call away if his services were required. Later in the week he facetimed Hastings to see how the young fly-half was ahead of his first Six Nations start against Ireland.
In the build-up to Scotland versus England, Townsend phoned Russell on Sunday and told him he was not going to be selected. When asked on Thursday whether the discussions were positive, Townsend responded: “It was a conversation.” When pressed further, Townsend said he did not want to discuss the matter as he wanted to be “talking about the players who are involved in the game”. One source suggested recalling Russell for Saturday’s game would disrupt the buildup, providing an unwanted amount of media attention. But equally, it’s the Calcutta Cup and you need your best players on the field.
It is all far from ideal as Scotland embark on their next quadrennial World Cup cycle. They have a new captain in Stuart Hogg, one of Scotland’s two world-class players. Hastings will play well against England, but if they lose then the ‘what-ifs’ and calls for Russell will only grow.
The next step is only known to Russell and Townsend, but from what multiple sources have told ESPN, Russell has to agree to the team’s code of conduct, either a figurative or literal code.
Note this from Townsend the week prior to Ireland versus Scotland: “Every individual has to align himself to what’s to the benefit of the team. If their actions are against that, there will be consequences.
“Nothing is more important in sport than playing for your national team, even more than club level — to be with the team, to promote that team culture of togetherness, of high standards and responsibility for what you have when you’re wearing that thistle.
“Every player is reminded of that every time when they come into camp. Every player works hard to be given that opportunity to play for Scotland and that will always be the case.”
There needs to be a compromise and the two must find common ground. Until then the stand-off between the two stand-offs remains. But undoubtedly, the Six Nations is poorer for Russell’s absence. He is out of sight, but definitely not out of mind.