Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# Setback
Finn Russell's dramatic exit dents Scotland's bid for fresh start in Dublin
Gregor Townsend has a revamped coaching staff and a new captain for the Six Nations.

GREGOR TOWNSEND COULD be forgiven for cursing the hand he was dealt last week.

If Ireland are keen to bounce back from a poor World Cup in Saturday’s Six Nations opener in Dublin, then Scotland are very much in the same boat.

Looking for their own fresh start, Townsend needed as much as possible to go his way in the build-up to this visit to the Aviva Stadium.

After being dismantled by Ireland in their first pool game in Japan last year, the Scots came up short in their thrilling final group-stage fixture against the hosts to ensure an exit before the quarter-finals. Add in the fact that the Scottish Rugby Union had to pay a fine following comments made by CEO Mark Dodson and it certainly wasn’t the happiest World Cup for Scotland.

finn-russell-dejected-after-the-game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Russell left the Scotland camp early last week. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Turning the page, Townsend would have felt excitement at naming a Six Nations squad including six uncapped players, as well as a new captain in fullback Stuart Hogg. 

Townsend also has a revamped coaching staff, with former Ospreys boss Steve Tandy on board as defence coach and ex-France prop Pieter de Villiers installed as scrum coach, while Danny Wilson and Mike Blair continue as forwards coach and skills specialist, respectively.

Encouragingly, Hogg has been in excellent form for new club Exeter Chiefs since the World Cup, while out-half and key man Finn Russell had been showing his attacking class for Racing 92 in France. There would have been a fair degree of optimism.

But the Scots are now without Russell after he departed camp early last week following an incident around which the details remain a little blurry. It certainly seems there was booze involved and a dispute between Russell and Townsend, but the end result is that the talented out-half is back in Paris, having played for Racing 92 over the weekend.

Russell definitely won’t be involved against Ireland and it remains unclear if he will return to Scotland camp at all during this Six Nations.

Hot on the heels of dramatically losing Russell came an injury to wing Darcy Graham, whose often scintillating attacking play would likely have featured in Scotland’s starting XV to face Ireland on Saturday. 

So there have been major frustrations for Townsend but he must focus on what he actually has for this visit to Dublin.

Glasgow’s 23-year-old Adam Hastings, a fine passer and kicker of the ball, is now set for his first Six Nations start in the number 10 shirt, while Townsend has more firepower in the back three in the likes of Blair Kinghorn and Sean Maitland.

adam-hastings Dan Sheridan / INPHO Adam Hastings is now set to step up at 10. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Townsend has lost lots of experience with the international retirements of Greig Laidlaw, Tommy Seymour, and John Barclay since the World Cup, but perhaps the change within the leadership group and the opportunity for Hastings can spark something in Scotland.

27-year-old Hogg has looked more mature than ever in recent months with Exeter, clearly delighting in his change of scenery. There is less of the exasperated waving of the arms and stamping of the feet at team-mates’ errors, while he is making decisions with selflessness, which bodes well for the Scots.

“I remember at Glasgow the first time Stuart was in a leadership group he maybe wasn’t so keen to be part of it,” said Townsend of his new skipper.

“He has grown into the leadership role, whether that’s a tactical one, what it means to play for your country, what to do in the training week. 

“I thought Stuart was outstanding in our World Cup camp with the energy he brought every day and how that inspired others around him and how he connected with others. He has knowledge of the game and he is our most experienced player. Those factors were all huge positives.”

While Ireland are currently training in Portugal in preparation for Saturday’s clash, the Scots are in Spain, where Townsend will hope a strong few days of build-up overshadow the setbacks of last week.

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The Scotland boss said he doesn’t envisage his players carrying any anger from their World Cup humbling at the hands of Ireland into this weekend’s game, but it would be strange if several of them aren’t motivated by the chance of revenge. 

Of course, Ireland themselves have looked to turn the page since the World Cup, with new boss Andy Farrell insisting they haven’t spent too much time looking back at their failed campaign in Japan.

gregor-townsend-and-stuart-hogg Dan Sheridan / INPHO Townsend and Hogg at last week's Six Nations launch. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There will likely be at least one or two fresh faces in Ireland’s matchday 23 – which is named tomorrow afternoon in Portugal – with Townsend anticipating a slightly different approach than was the case under Joe Schmidt.

“The first game of a tournament, teams usually bring something new anyway,” said Townsend. “They’ve had three months after November to work on things.

“With Ireland, it is a change of attack potentially, but we don’t know. I think their defence will be similar – a lot of defences are similar anyway – and Andy was the defence coach for a number of years, so we’ll wait and see.

“It is about adapting to what oppositions are doing, whether they are strong in areas you didn’t think they would be, or weaker in others.

“The challenge of playing Ireland in Dublin with their great home record, the opportunity is a huge one, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on – and focusing on the rugby that we want to be playing throughout the tournament, and you’ve only got a short period of time to get that in place for the first game.”

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