It didn’t require even one training session for Finn Russell to get back in the Scotland starting team, Gregor Townsend admitted as he named the team to take on New Zealand.
Experience, partnerships and a stellar 40 minutes by Russell for Racing on Saturday evening were basically enough for Townsend to make the U-turn. Russell went from fourth choice 10 and omitted from the Autumn squad to leading the line against the All Blacks almost overnight.
Townsend said he wanted his most experienced team to play New Zealand – who have made seven changes from the team that routed Wales for their visit to Murrayfield.
That meant stalling the Blair Kinghorn project for now. The starting stand-off for five of the last six games and apparently the frontrunner after Adam Hastings was ruled out is on the bench.
Clearly if there remains a personality issue between the stand-off and the coach it’s been shelved, at least for now. Russell’s partner, heptathlete Emma Canning, is due to give birth to their first child imminently but ‘he’s determined to be involved in this game’, said the coach.
‘He got back to me on Saturday night’
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 11, 2022
Townsend watched Russell tear up Perpignan off the bench for Racing on Saturday evening, just as news was coming through that Hastings would be out with head and knee injuries.
“I think Racing’s kick-off was about four o’clock, Finn came on at half-time and played well,” said Townsend. “Then I left him a message and he got back to me later on Saturday night.”
Russell arrived at Oriam on Tuesday morning, and the team was picked that night.
“Football managers pick the team two hours before kick-off,” continued Townsend. “We don’t do that in rugby, so you have to make calls at the beginning of the week to get things organised, give players confidence that they’re going to be in those roles.
“So we made the decision not based on training, but on what we feel is right this week.
“And a decision like that is more than just what the individual brings, but what combinations around him can help the team be as cohesive and perform at its best at the weekend.”
Despite internet rumours, this wasn’t all a cunning ruse to suddenly spring Finn on an unsuspecting All Blacks.
“We had an extra day with the game on Sunday, so I can’t say what would have happened had Adam been fit,” added Townsend. “We would back Adam and Blair (Kinghorn) against New Zealand.
“But Finn has played well the last month, five weeks, so we’re bringing someone in who is in form and has played for us a number of times in the past.”
Whither the Blair Switch Project, though?
Hastings is out of next week as well. Kinghorn is on the bench, as he was last week. But the investment in him as a 10 continues, says Townsend.
“He was disappointed when I gave him the news. Blair has played five games, six if you count the Tonga game a year ago. He came off the bench for us in the Six Nations and last week.
“He’s developing as a stand-off and we’ve given him opportunities to do that.
“We see it as a 23-man game, too. In this game, experience is important. We also see what Blair can do off the bench, not just covering 10 but covering the back three as well.
“While he’s disappointed not to start, we’re massive believers in him and how he’s progressing as a 10. But we feel that Finn starting this week gives us more chance of winning.”
He compared Kinghorn to Beauden Barrett, playing 10 this week for New Zealand but often a 15.
“I do understand people find it hard to see Blair with a 10 on his back because he’s not played there since school. But I don’t.
“I see his attributes at 10 and him having a massive influence on how teams play. We’ve seen it with Edinburgh and this summer.
“There are similarities between Blair and Beauden Barrett, a 10 who has played a lot at 15. To have that second ball player and kicker, with good running strength.
“We’re fortunate that we have a 15 that has a 10’s attributes and can be a runner and kicker. It’s good to have players who can play in more than one position and Blair can certainly do that.”
Future options at 10
Richie Mo'unga and Finn Russell go waaaaaay back.#SCOvNZL
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 9, 2022
Townsend now thinks he’s got what he always wanted – multiple quality players at 10 who can play elsewhere if needed.
“I don’t think we’ll have been in that situation very much over the last few years,” he said. “Blair has been stand-off for Edinburgh and I think they’re fifth in the league. Gloucester have only lost one game with Adam, Racing are back up into the top four in the league.
“We’ve got 10s with three leading teams and they are all playing really well. And Ross Thompson hasn’t yet played much for Glasgow. When he gets back we’ll have another 10 leading their attack.”
The rest of the team
Sione Tuipulotu comes in at 12 for a little more direct approach. Cam Redpath, as per release rules, has to return to Bath as he’s not in the matchday 23.
Fraser Brown will start at hooker with George Turner having not recovered sufficiently from his shoulder injury. He’s preferred to Ewan Ashman because of experience.
That is the only change in the starting pack from the Fiji game. Among the replacements WP Nel returns and could win his 50th cap, and Mark Bennett is the replacement outside back after missing out last week.
Stuart Hogg; Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe; Finn Russell, Ali Price ; Pierre Schoeman, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie (capt), Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Ewan Ashman, Rory Sutherland, WP Nel, Jonny Gray, Jack Dempsey, Ben White, Blair Kinghorn, Mark Bennett.