Finn Russell: Fly-half needs Scotland to pursue Lions ambitions

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Finn Russell
Finn Russell was a late call-up to the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017

It's still too early to say categorically that peace has broken out in the vexed business of Finn Russell versus Gregor Townsend and his players, but at least the signs are encouraging now.

A number of representations have been made to the exiled fly-half in Paris since this episode blew up.

"One step forward and two steps back" was the description of somebody close to the conversations a week or so ago. If an understanding has been reached and a breakthrough has been found - a cautionary 'if' is still advisable - then expedience has won the day. A positive outcome is not just in the national interest, it's in the personal interest of both parties at the heart of the dispute.

One of Russell's ambitions will be to play for the British & Irish Lions, not as a stunt double as he was when part of the 'Geography Six' in New Zealand in 2017 or even as one of the three fly-halves that Warren Gatland will pick for the tour to South Africa next year, but as a starting 10 in the Test series.

That's the highest level and it's where Russell wants to be and where he could be. In a Rolls-Royce team in Paris, his form has been excellent. The colossal talent around him at Racing gives him the freedom to play, the freedom to take risks without being suffocated by fear of doing the wrong thing.

None of that is going to turn Gatland's head. Flamboyance has never been a quality he's overdosed on. When he ponders his Lions selection this time next year he will be looking for guys he knows he can trust and Russell has a lot of ground to make up on that front. While we marvel at some of the things that the fly-half has done in his career - the incredible vision and outrageous talent to deliver on that vision - Gatland needs more.

Lions have options at fly-half

He'll admire Russell's creativity in Paris, but individualism has never rated all that highly in Gatland's teams. He didn't pick Russell in his Lions squad in New Zealand in 2017 because he felt he couldn't depend on him the way he could depend on stand-up characters like Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar. For Gatland, the Russell question is a question of trust.

The only way Russell can change that is by returning to the Test arena and showing that he can do it at a higher level than French club rugby. Gatland will want to see Russell in more challenging arenas, he'll want to see him go to South Africa and New Zealand with Scotland this summer and prove that he can step up on foreign and unforgiving soil, he'll want to see him go to Twickenham and Stade de France in the Six Nations next season and deliver not just occasional moments of class, but all-round mature performances in adversity.

If Russell stays in exile, would Gatland, a coach who already has reservations about him, realistically pick him for the Lions? It's a long time off, but doubtful, you'd have to say. Farrell will be 29 by the time the tour comes around and, barring injury, he'll be one of three selected to cover 10. Biggar will be 31 and will be another certainty, all things going well for him. That leaves one more.

Sexton will turn 36 that July and it's hard to see him still being at that level in 2021. Gatland is no great fan of George Ford, but the Englishman is a year younger than Russell and is playing well for his country. The Kiwi is a big admirer of Gareth Anscombe, his Grand Slam-winning 10 from 2019. Joe Simmonds, the young Exeter 10, is a coming man at the age of 23. He might force his way into Gatland's thinking if Eddie Jones gives him a shot.

Warren Gatland
Gatland will take care of his third Lions tour next year

So, in his pursuit of the ultimate, Russell needs the platform that Scotland can give him, but Scotland also need Russell. If it goes ahead - another 'if' - Scotland will be underdogs against France on Sunday and underdogs again in Wales the following Saturday. Both of those games are winnable but if you were down to your last fiver where would you place it?

One win from five (and a failed World Cup) would be a sufficiently big stick to hit the coach with, but if Russell remains in exile on top of that then that's an even worse look. It's not rocket science. Bringing Russell back would give Townsend a better chance of winning the games he needs to win to keep himself in the job.

Russell's return would also remove a cloud hanging over the squad. The Scotland players have grown weary from all the questions about their absent mate. They've been hugely professional in dealing with the incessant queries and have been utterly united in training and on the park, but they're fed up listening to all the chat about Russell - and no wonder. They want an end to it.

Everybody does. Russell flung a lot of accusations at Townsend and though the coach says they didn't hurt him, he wouldn't be human if some of the stuff didn't pierce his skin. Russell, for his part, feels - or felt - that he's better off outside of the Scotland environment, in part for his own health. They're in complete disagreement in their version of events, but they're as one in their need of each other.

Some straight talking has happened. Some more straight talking is required. Inch by inch they might be reaching a conclusion that benefits them both.

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