A Blessing In Disguise

Russell-Hastings Article (A Blessing In Disguise) Header Photo
One of the more interesting subplots of this year’s Six Nations was the high-profile falling-out between Finn Russell and Gregor Townsend, and how it opened the door for Adam Hastings, a turn of events which looked fatal for the Scottish national side, but proved to be to the benefit of everyone involved, bar the Racing 92 playmaker.

 

“The current situation, set-up and environment, I don’t think I want to play in that. I don’t think it’s good for me as a person or as a player,” [Finn] Russell told The Sunday Times. “I’ve felt like this for more than a year, and the last three weeks have shown me that it doesn’t seem to be changing at all.

 

“I’d love to play for Scotland again because I love playing for my country. But until I see or feel the big changes that I need to get back playing my best, it’s going to be very hard for me to do it.

 

“Eight years I’ve had him as a coach, and I don’t really know him at all,” he said, referencing his time working with [Gregor] Townsend initially at Glasgow Warriors and then at Scotland since the summer of 2017. “We’ve not got a personal relationship. With Racing, last year I couldn’t speak much to the coaches because my French wasn’t that good, but this year with [Irish backs and attack coach] Mike [Prendergast] I get on really well, I chat to him a lot and I’ve spoken to him a lot about this situation. It’s the same with Toto [head coach Laurent Travers] and [director of rugby] Yannick Nyanga.

 

“It’s a much more personal relationship. It’s like it was with Scotland under Vern [Cotter, Townsend’s predecessor]. When we’re training and playing, they’re my coaches, but with that we can have a good, honest chat and blether away like you would with family and friends. They treat you like an adult. After a game, they understand it’s your time to do what you need to. If you start coming in late for training or going out during the week, that’s when it’s a problem. This whole situation with Scotland has been made out to be about me wanting to have a drink, when in actual fact, it’s about control, respect and trust, on and off the pitch.

 

“I want the best for Scotland and so I’ve questioned the environment to try and make it better. We [him and Townsend] have clashed quite a lot, him saying one thing and me saying another. It’s come to a point where I’m saying, ‘you can be you and I’m going to be me. That’s how this relationship is going to be.’ Well, it’s not really a relationship.”

 

Russell mentioned an “argument” with Townsend during half-time of last year’s famous Calcutta Cup draw at Twickenham, and that has been identified as the first outward sign that the relationship between player and coach was not great, but it appears to stretch back much further than that.

 

“A lot our game plan last year revolved around stats and kicking, and for me that’s not rugby,” he said. “Just play the game. Under Vern, it was a very simple game plan but you could play anything off it. Some of the [Scotland] meetings last year, it was like, ‘what are [we] actually trying to do here?’ It’s hard for the other boys to say anything. They’re contracted to the SRU. I know that’s also been the case [with what’s been said publicly] in the last couple of weeks. They’ve been building up to games, and [team] media [activity] these days is so controlled.”

 

Russell apparently told Townsend during the weeks leading up to this Six Nations that he had doubts about his continued involvement, but after playing for Racing 92 in a Champions Cup match against Saracens at Allianz Park, he took an evening flight from Luton to Edinburgh with his family and his Scotland team-mate Sean Maitland, who had been in the opposition that day, arriving in the nearby team hotel just before 9pm. The home-based contingent were already in camp, having played the day before.

 

Russell is part of Scotland’s leadership group, but in his absence the other members had apparently agreed that after a game, players would be allowed two beers each and that there would be a team night out after the Calcutta Cup match. Russell had “two beers with dinner” and “ordered another one”, which is when things started to unravel.

 

“The players at dinner were like, ‘no more drinking’. These are guys I know well, so I said, ‘what’s the problem, I’ve just played, I just want a couple of beers’ and they said that’s what the leaders had agreed,” he explained. “I’m part of the leaders group, but they’d had the meeting before I got there. I’d not had a say. So for me, straight away, it was set up pretty poorly.

 

“It refreshed all the memories about the environment. I’ve just played a game, my 13th in a row, flown straight up and it’s the exact same. I’ve spoken to Gregor two weeks beforehand to tell him how I was feeling and not heard back for 10 days. What’s going on? It’s also the case that a night out after England is fine for the boys employed by the SRU who will have that next week off, but me and some of the other boys will be back to play for our clubs. I know it can’t be changed for one person, but at least if we get a say at the time, we can come to an agreement. Again, though, it’s not about drink, it’s about the whole environment.”

 

Russell says he phoned his parents at 10pm, who came and picked him ups from the hotel at around 11.30pm. He missed the team meeting the following morning, then returned to camp that night for a planned meeting with Townsend, during which he was told he would not be considered for selection against Ireland on account of his “breach of team protocol” on the Sunday.

 

“For me and Gregor, it was a decent enough chat, I’ve never spoken to him properly like that before,” said Russell. “But still I felt we were going round in circles. I’m like, ‘I’m trying to tell you what I’m thinking, and we just go round again. You need to listen to me.’ I don’t really feel I get that from Gregor.”

 

Russell visited a psychologist at Townsend’s behest the following day, which appears to be linked to the very clear SRU narrative that this whole issue revolves around his relationship with alcohol.

 

“The psychologist understood what I was saying about me going out once a week after a game. He said, ‘you’re not on the front of newspapers, you’re not overweight, you’re performing well’. He didn’t see any issue. I’d had pretty much the same conversation with Gregor on the Monday night, and he said, ‘there must be something deeper inside, something you’re not telling us yet.’ I’m like, ‘what do you want me to say for you to be satisfied, rather than listening to what I’m saying?’”

 

“On the Wednesday morning, Gregor sent me a text saying, ‘if you want to go back to Racing, you are free to do that from today. Let me know if you decide to go back.’ For me, that text was, ‘you’re free to do what you want.’ But from then, it’s all been, ‘Finn’s left camp to go back to Racing, Finn’s this, Finn’s that’ when I’d said to Gregor, ‘if you want me here, I’m here. If you don’t, that [France] is where I need to be.’ The way this has all been spun, I’m the guy who left camp, I’m the guy who had the late night drinking session, I’m the guy who’s done this and that. It could have been sorted in-house. I didn’t turn up on the Monday and that was my choice, but since then it’s been just like, ‘see you later Finn’.”

 

Russell says that he had no contact from Townsend or the SRU between Thursday January 23rd until late last Sunday, when he received a call from Townsend to tell he was not being asked back into camp for the build-up to the England game.

 

“He just said he wasn’t changing anything in the squad for the England week. I didn’t really say much. The thing I said to Ali [Price, his close friend and former flatmate] was, ‘make sure the boys know it’s not anything to do with them. I’m not turning my back on my country or the boys, this is a personal thing between me and Gregor. I want to be with them. But just now it’s not really possible for me to be involved.’”

 

“I need to do what makes me happy and makes me play my best rugby. People can see the scenario as they want. But I need to do this for myself. It’s over a year I’ve been doing it for the country and for the fans. Before the last Six Nations, I was thinking the same. This is about me being honest and staying true to myself.

 

“People might not think it’s the right thing to do, but for me I believe it is. I believe we need change, it needs to move in a different route. We’re tracking along a road and it’s not been working for us, and it’s especially not been working for me.

 

“It’s a decision I’m going to make. If I look back in ten years’ time and when I’m retired and wish I hadn’t done, that’s fine. For me just now, for my rugby and my health, I don’t think I can do it. It’s not as simple as ‘have two weeks off, come back and it will be fine’. If only it was about that one thing [the ‘bust-up’].

 

“I’m going to back myself to play for Scotland again at some point. It’s definitely going to happen. The way it’s going to happen is for me to go back to my club, play really well, be me and happy.”

-Extracts from Finn Russell breaks silence for the first time since Scotland walk-out by David Barnes of The Offside Line

 

“If he comes back, is willing to agree to what we are currently living by in terms of standards then of course he can play a part in the future,” [Gregor] Townsend told BBC Scotland.

 

“Any player that comes into our group has to adhere and commit to the agreed set of behaviours that the group are currently living by and have done for the last three weeks.”

 

[Finn] Russell was told he would not feature in the tournament opener against Ireland after “breaching team protocol” during a drinking session at the team hotel.

 

Townsend then informed the fly-half the squad would remain unchanged for Saturday’s loss to England but that his last communication with the Racing 92 player had been a “really positive one”.

 

“I included in my message that if we can have a similar conversation after the England game, that would be something I’d look forward to,” Townsend explained.

 

“Things look like they’ve changed with what he’s said in the media.

 

“It doesn’t look like there will be any change to align himself to the agreed standards of behaviours that this group are currently living by.

 

“It will be disappointing for supporters, but ultimately what we believe will lead to our success is a team that is together, that can play to their potential. We have also some really good players that are showing now that when they get the opportunity, they can play very well at Test level.

 

“You’re disappointed if a player chooses not to be in the camp that you’ve enjoyed coaching in the past. I’m just disappointed that I’m not coaching Finn. I’ve coached him for over seven years and he’s been very coachable, he’s been great to work with.

 

“It’s been great to see how he’s evolved. He’s made the most of that potential.”

 

Russell said in his newspaper interview that the approach from coaches “hasn’t been working” for him or the team.

 

But Townsend, who also coached the player at Glasgow Warriors, countered: “If that was his views or the views from the person that wrote the article, they don’t ring true with what I’ve experienced with this group of players and with coaching Finn for seven, eight years.

 

“It was disappointing to read the article, just the timing of it with some of the issues within it, especially as we were hoping we’d be able to sit down and have a further conversation.”

-Extracts from Gregor Townsend disappointed by Finn Russell comments by Tom English of BBC Scotland

 

If you read between the lines of the above quotes, you get a classic case of a player being shown the door for not following his coach’s instructions. It’s easy to understand how this happened when you consider where Finn Russell plays his club rugby; Racing 92 have a squad packed with highly-paid superstars who are encouraged to freelance, but the trade-off that comes with that is that slotting into a unit and being asked to carry out a specific role feels like a chore in comparison.

 

I’ve no doubt that there is a great sense of camaraderie in the Racing squad (a cursory glance at their social media accounts will show you that), but in the professional game, team unity doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t translate to the pitch. The deficiencies in Racing’s defence and their players’ match fitness are obvious whenever they get into the deep end of the Heineken Cup (2018 aside). That’s the trouble with a club building up a roster of big names from around the globe; there’s no question that they will add quality to your squad, but when you have so many of them, sometimes a rockstar mentality can set in.

 

The Ospreys team of 10 years ago were a prime example; they were capable of producing brilliant scores, but in tough games when defences were tighter and champagne rugby was at a premium, the shoulders dropped, and their poor attitude and work ethic were there for all to see. They picked up a couple of Celtic league titles, but never fired a shot in the knockout stages of Europe when, on paper, they should have been regular finalists in the competition.

 

Last season, Racing only got as far as the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and the barrage stage of the Top 14. With the talent they have at their disposal, this should not be the extent of their ambitions, and going by their body language in general, complacency seems to be their biggest obstacle to silverware. It’s likely that being in that kind of environment led Russell to believe that he was irreplaceable in the Scottish team, and unfortunately for him, the player who stepped up in his absence took his chance with both hands.

 

Measuring Up

This year’s clash between Scotland and England is a good starting point to draw comparisons between Russell and Adam Hastings because it was exactly the type of game that a player like Russell hates; bad conditions and bigger opposition packs are kryptonite for creative, slight out-halves, and if Russell had started that match, England would probably have wiped the floor with Scotland.

 

I don’t think Townsend’s side would have played in the right areas of the field because Russell’s kicking out of hand is inferior (both in terms of distance and accuracy) to that of Hastings:

Russell Kicking 1 (v Eng 2019)

Russell Kicking 2 (v Eng 2019)

Hastings Kicking 1 (v Eng 2020)

Hastings Kicking 2 (v Eng 2020)

Russell’s grubber-kicking is superb, but his teams often spend more time playing in their own half than they should as a result of his attempts to express himself.

 

That’s not to say that Hastings is a mundane, kicking 10; his pace and footwork were evident back in February and March, and when presented with a gap, he doesn’t need a second invitation:

Hastings Pace-Footwork 1 (v Ita 2020)

Hastings Pace-Footwork 2 (v Fra 2020)

More importantly, though, he knows how to use his backline, and the variety to his option-taking in the Six Nations was impressive. He tormented Ireland and France (two of the sternest sides in the Championship defensively) with deft passes and probing kicks:

Hastings Variation In Attack 1 (v Ire 2020)

Hastings Variation In Attack 2 (v Fra 2020)

Hastings Variation In Attack 3 (v Fra 2020)

There’s more to playing 10 than what you do when your team are in possession, and with regards to defence, Hastings is a significant upgrade from Russell. At a time when space is hard to come by, out-halves are targeted more than ever, and having a bad tackler in that position is a major hindrance. We’ve seen Russell sought out repeatedly in the past by the opposition when they have the ball, and his strength in contact and application leave a lot to be desired:

Russell Def 1 (v Ire 2019)

Russell Def 2 (v Eng 2019)

At 6’2” and 92 kg, Hastings is by no means a weak link, but apart from physical attributes, his appetite for defensive work is on a different level to his competitor:

Hastings Def 1 (v Ire 2020)

Hastings Def 2 (v Eng 2020)

There’s not really a nice way of saying this, but Hastings is a better player than Russell on every count, with the exception of individual attacking class, which is more of a bonus than a requirement for the position. The Glasgow Warriors pivot had on off-day with his place-kicking against the Azzurri, but his accuracy from the tee never fell below 80% in any of the other Six Nations fixtures he played in.

 

Russell’s dismissal cast a shadow over the Scottish squad initially, with the expectation being that any aspirations they had of beating anyone other than Italy went out the window with him, but it turned out to be the opposite. Mohamed Haouas’ red card notwithstanding, I can’t imagine Scotland executing the game plan they used against France as well as they did with Russell starting because at some point, he would have veered off-script, and there is usually a drop in concentration among his teammates that follows.

 

Professional Harakiri

Tensions between Russell and his national coach have eased since, but I think he has done serious damage to his Test career because, to me, Hastings starting games with Russell coming off the bench is a better dynamic than the inverse. The former is a more rounded player who has superior game management and the latter is a fleet-footed, skillful magician who is the ideal replacement to come on when defences are tiring, similar to what South Africa have when Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies wear 10 and 22 respectively.

 

Going from being your country’s first-choice 10 with a promising young player well behind you in the pecking order to being outshone by him and potentially bumped down to a bench role (and even at that I think it’s a toss-up between his eye for space and Duncan Weir’s ability to close out games) is a massive fall from grace for a player who apparently saw himself as untouchable before the Six Nations began. In my view, Russell has essentially shot himself in the foot by thinking that he was more important than his team’s ethos, but his off-field antics have made Scotland a more difficult prospect.

 

There were certainly other factors in Scotland’s change of fortunes in the Six Nations. Steve Tandy has brought a hard edge to everything that they do, Scott Cummings, Jamie Ritchie and Nick Haining added heft to their pack, and while Chris Harris isn’t as silky a runner or smooth a passer as Huw Jones, his selection at 13 bolstered the Scottish midfield defence, but more by accident than design, Townsend has lucked upon an out-half who will give his team a greater chance of winning Test matches in the years to come.

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