Finn Russell. Discuss. Which is more or less all those in Scottish rugby have been doing for the past couple of weeks. The discussion, mercifully, will pause for 80 minutes on Sunday when the mercurial genius will do his thing at Murrayfield against the All Blacks, reinstated from nowhere at No 10. Then, no doubt, the debate will resume in earnest, the tenor of it determined by whichever way the mercury has flowed.
Only two weeks ago we were speculating over the end of Russell’s international career, dropped from Gregor Townsend’s squad altogether just a year out from the next World Cup. Townsend was a mercurial genius in his own playing days, but it seemed all too clear that when his quicksilver came into contact with Russell’s, the reaction had become toxic. We shall know more on that come four o’clock-ish Sunday afternoon.
When he left Russell out of his squad for the autumn, Townsend cited notions of form and consistency over the more obvious get-out of his unavailability for the first Test against Australia, which was outside the international window. Or indeed the other favoured conspiracy that Russell had not set the right sort of example when he was among a posse of drinkers out after hours in the wake of Scotland’s win over Italy in the Six Nations, a misdemeanour for which he was seemingly dropped to the bench in Scotland’s final match of the championship, against Ireland.
Townsend and Russell have had their run-ins, but the inconvenience of Russell’s excellent form in Paris for Racing 92 has led Townsend to this U-turn at No 10. Adam Hastings has been identified as possessing a more pleasing blend of artistry and discipline, but he was injured in Scotland’s unconvincing win over Fiji last weekend.
Russell came off the bench for Racing at around the same time and turned a half-time deficit against Perpignan into a 44-20 rout, gathering 16 points in the process. Not to have called him up under those circumstances would have been quite the autumn statement.
But Townsend did not have to catapult him into the starting lineup. Blair Kinghorn’s missed penalty against Australia cost Scotland victory, but the elegant playmaker has otherwise impressed. The path of least resistance might have been to reinstate him to the starting lineup.
Instead, Townsend has brought Russell straight in, which has the doubly unsettling effect of making the coach look as if he is contradicting himself and offending the long-suffering Kinghorn. Could be the stuff of genius, could be an implosion waiting to happen. A bit like the relationship between the two. A bit like Scotland.
If the former, a first win for the Scots over the All Blacks is not out of the question. New Zealand do not wield that same aura of yore, having lost four times this year. They won well against Wales last weekend but make a raft of changes, none giving the impression they consider this match the most testing of their tour.
Mark Telea, the winger from Auckland, makes his debut and there is a new pairing in the centre of David Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown. The Barrett brothers, Beauden and Jordie, continue their familiar rotation through the back line, this time lining up at fly-half and full-back respectively. But Scottish eyes will be on the man at scrum-half, Finlay Christie.
After years enduring the apparent barbs of commentators reminding the world that such-and-such a player in blue might not have been born in Scotland – the “big man from Wagga Wagga” syndrome we might call it – the Scots will be expecting multiple allusions to the wee man from Peebles. Christie was born in the Borders but his parents whisked him away to New Zealand when he was seven. Then the pandemic denied him the chance to sign for Glasgow. Since when he has bounded up the ladder of Kiwi scrum-halves and will step out in black at Murrayfield in front of those very Scottish parents.