If Gregor Townsend wanted a smooth prelude to the Six Nations that could define his reign as Scotland coach, he has instead endured a whizz down crocodile-infested rapids on a leaking oil drum.
In the space of a week, Townsend has been shorn of Finn Russell, his most important and influential player, and Darcy Graham, the red-hot Edinburgh winger who would surely have started in Dublin in the tournament opener next Saturday.
Graham is injured – that cannot be helped – but the Russell tale is altogether more troubling. The story, well-documented by now, goes that Scotland’s supreme stand-off was drinking in the team hotel last Sunday night, resisted the calls of players and coaches to stop, missed Monday’s training session.
Then, after being told he would not be considered for the Ireland game, it was said he was welcome to stay and help the team prepare but chose to leave the camp.
Russell has not yet given his side of the story. Speaking to the Scottish Mail on Sunday after he helped Racing 92 wallop Castres on Saturday, he said he was only a “phone call away” for any of his team-mates who wanted a word.
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Finn Russell warned he must make the first move to salvage his Scotland career
He would not talk about his exile, the allegations about his behaviour, or what appears to be the culmination of a degenerating relationship with his head coach. Townsend addressed the issue for the first time in a scheduled Monday press conference, saying that he and Russell spoke for more than two hours last week and parted on good terms.
“I had a very good meeting with him,” he told BBC Scotland. “I’ve coached Finn for six or seven years now so we know each other very well, but the most important thing is the team. The team is what counts.”
On this, the coach is absolutely right. No player, no matter how talented or how vital, is bigger than the team. If Russell has engaged in the sort of egregious behaviour of which he is accused, then it is correct that he is punished. To make an allowance for a star man would be to shred the squad’s morale, foster resentment and set an atrocious double standard.
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But you have to ask why Russell acted out. Why would a player in the form of his life embark on a drinking session, and apparently defy his peers and coaches, on the eve of a Six Nations camp? Why would he decide to leave the squad rather than help them train for a huge Test match? Is it merely a case of laddish exuberance gone too far, or is something more sinister at play?
Russell has liked a series of supportive tweets, one in particular saying that there is “nothing wrong with standing up for yourself”. He has since been pictured on Instagram seemingly enjoying a drink with former Glasgow team-mates on holiday in Dubai.
There’s nothing wrong with that – he has time off from club duty and has no international to prepare for – but the optics aren’t great. After a year of rugby horrors, this is a deeply worrying episode for Scotland. The national team – and most of all, their coach – needs an uplifting campaign that will restore public faith in their ability and positivity about where they are going.
There have been some developments in the Finn Russell sagahttps://t.co/u0LIIWJE2r
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 23, 2020
Losing his play-maker is a grievous blow to Townsend. Johnnie Beattie, the former Scotland number eight who has spent the past eight seasons in France, reckons Russell is seen as the best player in the country.
He has been nominated for the prestigious European player of the year award, and his outrageous highlights reel seems to gain another clip by the weekend. His acts of wizardry have only grown more spectacular at Racing and his game management has developed in spades. The flakiness and hair-brained errors of old are evaporating.
It is not just that Russell is brilliant, and that so much of Scotland’s game plan revolves around him, but there isn’t a great deal of Test quality behind him. You can go position by position through the Scotland squad, name-check pretty much every big player – Stuart Hogg, Graham, Ali Price, Jonny Gray – and he is about as close to irreplaceable as they come.
We go again ?
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) January 28, 2020
How long will Scotland do without him? “Let’s see what happens over the next few weeks,” said Townsend.
In the aftermath of the crazy Calcutta Cup draw of last year and Scotland’s spectacular second-half revival sparked almost entirely by Russell, the stand-off spoke about his difference of opinion with Townsend at half-time. “I actually had an argument with Gregor,” he told ITV after the match.
“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.”
Privately, Russell is believed to be surprised that Townsend is still in a job after the wretched 2019 Six Nations and the heinous group stage exit from the World Cup in Japan.
Worst of all, the fans who have paid considerable sums to sell out Murrayfield over and over, travelled all across Europe and Japan to watch the team play and are about to do so again, still don’t truly know why their darling play-maker is out of commission.
Speculation, rumour, vague statements – that isn’t good enough. Supporters deserve a clearer explanation.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 26, 2020
At the moment, Russell looks bad for what he is supposed to have done and Townsend doesn’t look great either for failing to keep a crucial player focused and diligent. You wonder, though, if the wizened Greig Laidlaw were still in camp, whether things would have come to a head in such dire circumstances.
What is blatantly clear is that Scottish Rugby cannot allow this to fester any further. Mark Dodson, their chief executive, is being paid nearly £18,000 a week, and he ought to take responsibility for bringing about an amicable resolution that can eventually allow Russell to return to international duty.
He has to do that without undermining his head coach, appearing to pander to the play-maker and risking malcontent spreading through the squad, or indeed upsetting the player further.
Dodson took an absolute pasting when details of his incredible remuneration package emerged this month. A bullish character, he has done a power of good for transforming Scottish Rugby’s financial performance, arming its pro-teams with more money and hiring successful coaches, but he has also presided over some distinctly unpleasant and ill-advised affairs.
Most pertinently, he was heavily involved in sacking Russell’s father – a former head of domestic rugby – in 2018. Keith Russell later won an unfair dismissal case against the governing body. Whether Dodson could act as a credible referee between player and coach is highly doubtful, but he has got to get someone who can on the case.
Doing without Russell for any length of time is incredibly damaging to Scotland and Townsend, who probably has more at stake in this championship than anyone. At the moment, nobody comes out of this looking good. Russell’s absence will hurt Scotland and hurt Townsend at a time where they desperately need some feel-good.
WATCH: Finn Russell gives RugbyPass a kicking masterclass at Racing 92’s state of the art training facility in Paris
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