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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Finn Russell must be back without preconditions as Scotland gather for extended Autumn season

Finn Russell has been in exhuberant form for Racing 92 since rugby restarted after lockdown.
Finn Russell has been in exhuberant form for Racing 92 since rugby restarted after lockdown.

Sombre words are emanating from rugby’s international boardrooms. Talk of an existential crisis, word that the 2021 Six Nations might have to be held back a month or two or more. Things are getting serious.

I mean, we’re panicking about the next one and still not near the end of the 2020 tournament yet. Scotland’s tournament will finally be played out on the last day of this month behind closed doors at Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli.

Wales vs Scotland, a game which is a guaranteed sell-out whenever and wherever it is played, with officials, TV people and 30 media (I am told) in attendance only. It’s a crying shame, although at least we won’t have to listen to “Hymns and Arias”, hopefully.

This is to be Scotland’s second game of five in the autumn, amidst the Nations Cup tournament which kicks off a week before at BT Murrayfield against our old pals Georgia, probably, despite the SRU’s fading hopes, behind closed doors as well.

With all this going on, it hardly seems appropriate to consider such frippery as Gregor Townsend’s training squad to be named in the early part of next week. But we’re going to be playing, and the national team are the focal point of what’s left of the Scottish game, so it needs to be done.

Gregor Townsend had a good 2020 up until lockdown, and even beyond. Under significant pressure after the rank failure at the Rugby World Cup, he recast his backroom team, delegated a little more, withstood a wholly avoidable spat with one of his star players to come out with renewed authority, and finished what was played of the Six Nations with a 50 per cent record.

Had the season continued unrestricted, Townsend’s proud record of having the best record of any Scottish national coach since professionalism would almost certainly be gone.

We haven’t won in Wales since 2002 so there was no particular reason to suspect the Scots would have ended that record in March, and in the summer tour the Scots were due to play world champions South Africa twice and in New Zealand, our first invite to play the All Blacks there since 2000.

“We want to test ourselves against the best”? Aye, dodged a bullet there, Toonie.

To be fair, in the Six Nations there were certainly signs the Scots were starting a new journey and I don’t know what would have been served by three houkings in the Cape and in Dunedin. Much better to re-start with Georgia, who Scotland defeated handsomely in two World Cup warm-ups, Italy, who’ve beaten Scotland just once in a decade now, a Wales team without their crowd, France and Fiji.

Front and centre of the new regime is now captain Stuart Hogg, who has been blazing for Exeter. Hoggy has also indicated that he expects Finn Russell, in similarly exhuberant form for Racing 92, to be welcomed back after his spring tantrum/principled stand (delete as you think appropriate) with no preconditions – well, apart from the standard squad rules, that is.

If Adam Hastings had started the new season spectacularly for Glasgow, Townsend might have had a reason to stick with him at 10. But Hastings definitely hasn’t, while Finn has been majestic in inspiring Racing to the Heineken Cup final.

There is no decision to be made here, although I reckon Adam is still the back-up, even if Edinburgh’s steady Jaco van der Walt is now qualified.

Up front, Rory Sutherland has if anything enhanced his reputation since his breakthrough Six Nations. Oli Kebble is a strong No 2 at No 1. Fraser Brown has definitely got a yard or two on perennial rival Stuart McInally since re-start, while Zander Fagerson, WP Nel and Simon Berghan (in that order) are a rock solid trio at tight head.

Jonny Gray looks fully reset at Exeter, but I can’t make a case – yet – for a reunion of the brothers at second row. Scott Cummings has an edge on Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis for the second slot for my money.

Back row – Jamie Ritchie has happily avoided any of Edinburgh’s struggles since restart, and is a stick-on with team-mate Hamish Watson. No 8 is a bit of a revolving door right now, but Matt Fagerson deserves a shot in the role, I think.

Alongside Russell there’s the rotating formation of Ali Price and George Horne at 9. I imagine Sam Hidalgo-Clyne may get a recall, but I don’t think he’s shifting the incumbents.

Those in situe in midfield are Sam Johnson and Chris Harris. Johnson hasn’t really played much since restart, but Rory Hutchinson surely deserves a good look anyway. Harris, although he doesn’t fit the image of what many Scots would like to see at 13, did absolutely nothing wrong and a whole lot right in the spring, so plainly deserves to retain his place.

Back three is now almost an embarrassment of riches – Hogg at 15, obviously and perm two from the newly qualified Van der Merwe, Graham, Kinghorn and Maitland. I don’t think you miss much with whatever you choose.