|Venue: Murrayfield Stadium Date: Friday, 23 October Kick-off: TBC|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Johnnie Beattie makes a booming proclamation about the brilliance of Finn Russell and where the Scotland fly-half’s game is right now.
Beattie, the recently retired back row, spent eight years in France, where Russell is bossing the Top 14 with the swaggering Parisians of Racing 92.
He reckons Russell is the finest pivot the French game has seen in a decade - better than World Cup-winning legends Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter and Handre Pollard, better than Ireland’s totem Johnny Sexton, and better than the fabulous Brock James of Australia.
The kind of breathtaking skill that has become synonymous with Russell was perfectly illustrated when he inspired Racing to victory in the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens with a piece of magic to oust the defending champions.
His high risk, high reward game did not come off as he will have hoped in the final against Exeter though. Having set up the first of Simon Zebo’s two scores, a later pass was intercepted by Henry Slade for a try while a juggle behind his own line almost gifted Scotland captain Stuart Hogg’s side a score in the first half.
Beattie, though, accepts the occasional moment of deflation with the much more regular moments of brilliance.
“Dan Carter won two Top 14 titles with Racing 92, but he didn’t produce and sparkle on a weekly level the way Finn does,” Beattie tells BBC Scotland.
“The French absolutely admire his rugby IQ, his smarts, technical abilities, quality of passing, decision-making - all those things that if you were playing Championship Manager back in the day, you were looking for. All those quality attributes that make world-class players, that is what Finn brings every week.
“He has been probably the best 10 in the Top 14 for the past 10 years. That is a big statement but there isn’t anybody that has operated at that level that consistently. He is yards ahead of the competition.”
Pints, fags and French craziness
Russell is back in the Scotland squad this week for the first time since the well-documented fraying of his relationship with Gregor Townsend led to him leaving the team hotel on the eve of the Six Nations camp in February.
The playmaker was, the story goes, confronted by team-mates when he ordered a third beer, breaking the squad’s agreed limit of two. Russell later said the leadership group - of which he was a member - had set the rule without consulting him.
He spoke frankly and caustically too about Townsend and the environment over which the coach presided, dominating the preamble to a hugely important competition.
“When you come away from Scotland and move to France, your eyes are opened to what other clubs and countries let players get away with,” Beattie says.
“There are All Blacks who can have 15 pints on a Tuesday night and rock up and still play. Or you’ve got French boys who can have 15 fags on a Friday night. It’s crazy but that’s what you see.
“It’s then hard to come back where you feel slightly more shackled and hard done by.
“The Scotland team and pro-teams are a very tightly run ship. We don’t have the biggest player pool, therefore we have to work our backsides off and maybe don’t deviate from a tighter culture or stricter rules.”
‘No ego or clash’
Townsend and Russell have, in the words of the coach, “connected a lot more” during lockdown. Bridges have been rebuilt. Russell wants to come back and Hogg is desperate for him to return too.
“It was a fairly poor PR exercise for all,” Beattie adds. “We’re a small country and we need our best players on the pitch. Arguments have been had, but you hope that the boys with Gregor are better as a team for it,” he says.
“It’s good that they’ve had conversations and between senior players as well. Hoggy had a big role in the initial conversations and so did [former Scotland captain] Greig Laidlaw.
“Gregor is still absolutely the boss, everybody knows and understands that full well. Finn comes in and plays his role in the team and if it’s not him it’s somebody else and that’s the same for everyone.
“There is so much water under the bridge, when he comes back in, I don’t see any ego or clash coming back now. It’ll be great for the squad because he’s an upbeat, entertaining bloke and he’s good for morale.”
‘Scotland’s most influential player’
Adam Hastings blossomed in Russell’s absence this year, performing admirably in the truncated Six Nations, but there is no doubt the Racing man is on another level.
His form post-lockdown has been blistering, just as it has been for much of his two years in Paris. Russell delivered a glorious chip-kick that created the winning try in the dying embers of his side’s Champions Cup semi-final conquering of Saracens.
“That game is completely unlocked by one piece of majestic skill,” Beattie says. “To be able to execute and direct the team with that level of skill, his performances with Racing, his performances with Scotland going back a couple of years, the position he drives the team into, he is 100% Scotland’s most influential player.
“Hoggy is just as skilful and electric, and ridiculous in what he brings to team, but he is more there to finish things off or counter-attack.
“In terms of touches on the ball, how you drive the team and those moments of magic, Finn is absolutely instrumental to how Scotland play.”