Scotland coach Gregor Townsend insists there was never any doubt in his mind that stand-off Finn Russell would keep the No.10 jersey for Saturday’s highly-anticipated renewal of the world’s oldest international rugby fixture.
Townsend has picked the same starting line-up that got Scotland’s Six Nations back on track with victory over France for the 125th staging of the Calcutta Cup against England at BT Murrayfield.
Following the 32-26 win over the French, there have been concerns over the form of attacking linchpin Russell, who was poor in the opening thumping in Wales and had trouble finding touch the following weekend and was substituted in the second half.
“There was no doubt that Finn would start,” said Townsend at yesterday’s team announcement. “He played well a lot in the France game. He had a couple of kicking errors, but a lot of the positive play we had in both halves, Finn was a part of that. He is our attack leader and an outstanding stand-off.
“He is very competitive and determined to work on areas he needs to work on. He will be a key player for us.”
Townsend hinted that the Glasgow man, who joins Racing 92 next season, may have touch-kicking duties taken off his shoulders so he can focus on other aspects of his game.
“We’ll see,” said the coach. “Stuart Hogg is obviously very good at doing that job and both have been working hard on it this week.”
Townsend’s decision to bring Russell off against France and move scrum-half Greig Laidlaw to stand-off was widely praised as the decisive call that turned a tense encounter Scotland’s way.
However, the coach made the surprising revelation yesterday that he actually thought his team would have won by more if Russell had remained in place.
“Finn was very good in the second half,” said Townsend. “I believe that, if Finn had stayed on the field, we would have won the game and potentially had a couple of more tries.
“He was building into a really good game. He had a couple of breaks in the second half, putting other people into space.
“He was a big part of how we were on the front foot against France, in the second half. And he has shown that in training over the past week, that physically he’s in good shape and he’s controlling our attack, been involved in the decision making – so he seems to be in a very good place.”
That provoked the obvious question of why he had given the player the shepherd’s hook?
“Well this is me speculating after,” he explained. “The reason we took him off was to get [substitute scrum-half] Ali Price on. And, at the time, we felt Greig would be important – goal kicking was a key factor in order to get ahead of France on the scoreboard. Finn would have kicked well too, so either of those players would have put us in a good place.
“What I mean by saying that Finn being on the field could have got is a couple of tries is that, to be honest, we could have got another couple in the last ten minutes. We had a couple of opportunities five metres from the try line, when we settled for the penalty instead of going to that extra ruck and scoring a try.”
Townsend has made changes on his bench this week, with Edinburgh tighthead WP Nel poised for his first appearance since breaking his arm in the first autumn Test against Samoa. Lock Tim Swinson, who is also recently back from injury, replaces Ben Toolis and Glasgow centre Nick Grigg comes in for Newcastle’s Chris Harris.
England coach Eddie Jones will name his team in London on Thursday before heading north looking to maintain a decade-long winning run over the Scots and remain on course for a third successive championship.