It’s definitely not normal practice for a head coach to start a controversy when there previously was none, but Glasgow’s Dave Rennie waded into one with some relish last week.
Questioned by the BBC’s Tom English prior to the final 1872 Cup match, Dave’s retort to Tom’s assertion that Finn Russell was a world class stand-off was kind of startling.
“In your opinion” said the coach, almost indignantly. He went on to say that he believed his current ten, the 22-year-old Adam Hastings, would be a better player than Russell.
This led to much clutching of pearls in the rugby media. Russell is currently the unquestioned playmaker with the national team, and his beguiling style of play has earned admiration the world over, especially since THAT second half at Twickenham in mid-March.
Rennie’s comments deserve a little context. His first year at Glasgow was Finn’s last, and it became increasingly clear in the final weeks, as Glasgow’s campaign unravelled, that the pair were not on the same wavelength.
There was no direct criticism, but plenty of veiled stuff from the coach, that Finn was not playing to orders. Rennie puts out an inventive, attacking team, but he loves his structure and Finn was too much of an off-the-cuff player for his liking.
Dave didn’t seem dismayed that Finn was headed off to Racing 92, and in hindsight it’s been a good move for both parties. The French are happy to indulge Russell’s whimsical playing style, and Dave has a young ten in Adam Hastings he can mould into a rounded playmaker.
That’s the real context of his comments comparing the two, and it’s absolutely valid.
For all that we love to watch Finn in full flow, not even his most ardent admirer would deny that he is a streaky player.
Twickenham was a case in point. He was dreadful – along with the rest of the team – in the first half, apparently unstoppable in the second.
Many have suggested that Russell was responsible for the transformation, largely based on his own post-game comments about an “argument” at half-time with Gregor Townsend over the kicking tactics.
Only if you look at the game again, what does Finn actually do with his first two possessions in the second half?
He kicked long, as per the original game plan, only much more accurately and effectively. The major difference was not so much Finn changing tactics, but him getting a steady stream of front-foot ball from the pack from which to dictate the game.
Russell can be electric, but he can also be anonymous. And the key is that this is Finn, and this is what he’s going to be; he’s gained more confidence and elan in France, but he’s essentially the same player he was when he left Scotstoun.
Hastings, on the other hand, is still 22 and far from the finished article. He shares a lot of Russell’s elan, probably isn’t quite as good a tackler, and has been as inconsistent.
But Rennie clearly believes that as he matures, Adam can be a more reliable player – perhaps not quite as devastating as Finn can be on his day, but much less likely to go missing when things are going against him.
The head coach also clearly believes that Hastings is already better at the unseen, unglamorous but essential “off the ball” stuff than Finn is.
Is Rennie alone in this view? I think Gregor Townsend actually shares it.
The Scotland coach has already said that he wants Hastings to be a rival than just an understudy to Russell for Scotland. And with a character like Finn, it’s only wise to have a threat to his position keeping him honest and focused.
Russell is certainly the main man right now, and with him at the helm it’s going to be a thrilling, if occasionally frustrating, ride.
But don’t be surprised if Hastings turns out to be a far more rounded player, and Scotland’s regular playmaker, early in the coming decade.
They’ve moved on from Richie
When my premature RWC squad appeared on this page a month ago, I expressed a fear that the Scotland management might have moved on from Richie Gray, and it seems they have.
You can’t draw any other conclusion from the lock’s omission from the summer training squad named this week, even if a “backdoor” route has been left open for him.
Gray has played much more in 2019 than Blade Thomson or Duncan Taylor – who hasn’t played at all – yet they’ve both been included without any caveats.
Taylor, who has an injury history best described as chronic, may of course break down again. But he’s considered to be of such potential value that he’s essentially been included sight unseen.
I don’t disagree with their assessment of the Saracens player. I also feel that Gray at his best has at least the same potential as a significant presence for Scotland in Japan.
Richie certainly hasn’t been shooting the lights out with Toulouse since returning from serious injury.
But his upside is such that it’s absolutely baffling Gregor Townsend doesn’t consider him to be among the top 42 players available to Scotland.