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What is there to be done about the fly-half situation in Scottish Rugby?

Finn Russell
Finn Russell - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography

By Murray Wilson

With the Autumn Nations series just days away, Gregor Townsend has named his initial Scotland squad – Jamie Ritchie is Captain and Australian Jack Dempsey receives a call-up, which everyone pretty much expected. The biggest point of contention, however, is the omission of a certain Finn Russell. Townsend’s squad includes three standoffs: converted fullback Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and Ross Thompson; yet no Finn Russell.

Is Russell’s form really that poor, or is this another chapter in the saga of disagreements between a micromanaging coach and a maverick playmaker, or is Townsend looking to extend the range of fly-half options before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in less than a year?

It is no secret that Russell and Townsend are not exactly best mates, with Finn’s seemingly carefree attitude and penchant for tearing up the script an anathema to planner Townsend, putting a strain on their professional relationship, all coming to a head when Russell was dropped from the 6 Nations squad for breaking team protocols on a night out. It is clear that this was only the surface of the issue, with Russell stating that the “situation, set-up and environment…I don’t think its good for me as a person or a player”.

Unfortunately, however, for Townsend, Finn Russell is a world class fly-half and not an asset it seems prudent for Scotland to leave out. However, faced with a daunting Autumn Nations Series hosting Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and an Argentina team that beat them in a test series over the Summer, Townsend has done just that, omitting Russell completely, reasoning that “it’s a challenge for him to show his form and consistency over the next few weeks”.

This begs the question: who should be Scotland’s first choice fly-half for the Autumn Internationals, and with a view forward to the World Cup?

To put it lightly, Blair Kinghorn, by Townsend’s own admission, still needs time to develop and flourish in the ten shirt. He is an excellent fullback, but you get the feeling that he is playing out of position when he plays fly-half, a problem illustrated best when Kinghorn was selected ahead of Finn Russell against Ireland in the 6 Nations. The result: Ireland in almost total control and a dominant Irish win. The 25 year old, who has three starts for Edinburgh in the URC this season, is a talented and valuable player by all means, but his style of play is seemingly the antithesis of Russell’s maniacal laughter and moments of whimsy in the face of danger and risk.

Kinghorn started all three tests against Argentina on the summer tour, but it must be noted that the only game of the three that Scotland won was when he had the least amount of time at fly-half, when he was pushed to fullback by Ross Thompson after 49 minutes. There is no doubt that Kinghorn has a vital role in the match day squad, perhaps served best as cover at 10 and 15 from the bench.

With three Scotland caps, and an impressive amount of experience and stability for such a young player, Ross Thompson is an encouraging but exceptional recent product of the floundering Scottish youth pathway system. Thompson made a strong impact coming off the bench in the second two tests against Argentina, steadying the side and allowing them to compete with their South American hosts far more than they could in the first test, in which Thompson didn’t appear.

It is worth noting that this season he has more playing minutes for Super Six side Ayrshire Bulls than he does for the Glasgow Warriors; playing Stirling Wolves at Millbrae and the All Blacks at Murrayfield are more than a few rungs apart. Selection for the Glasgow squad to travel to South Africa will bring reassurance for Thompson, and game time against top-tier test opponents is invaluable. If Townsend is serious about including Ross Thompson in his World Cup squad, as much game time as possible is a necessity – he has the talent and control to be there, now he needs the experience at the top.

The most experienced fly-half in Gregor Townsend’s squad is Adam Hastings. With 26 Scotland caps and a sharp run of form for Gloucester, Hastings has made his way back into favour after falling foul to injury that prevented him from touring Argentina.

Receiving only cameo appearances for his country last season, a simultaneously commanding and yet electric tenure for Gloucester has allowed him to truly show his skill set as not only a playmaker but also as a finisher. Despite having played the least of the three for Scotland over the last twelve months, Hastings has made himself impossible to ignore, and, with the omission of Russell, is perhaps best suited to fill the number 10 jersey come game day.

The idealist’s selection at fly-half would no doubt have been Russell, but without such liberties, a mixture of Hastings and Thompson seems to be the best option. Hastings has the zip and spark that Scotland need to bring them away from the turgid rugby that any Scotland fan will know all too well, whilst Thompson will benefit hugely from such exposure to world-class opposition. Kinghorn no doubt has a prominent role to play, being able to cover flyhalf and fullback, but his emphasis and deployment has to surely be in the back three.

Come what may, the Autumn Internationals will provide a remarkable insight, as well as valuable game time for Finn’s potential successors in the increasingly short run-up to the pinnacle of Test Rugby, the Rugby World Cup in France.

Follow Murray on Twitter @murrayjwilson

22 Responses

  1. You just know being Toony that he’ll pick Kinghorn at 10 to prove he’s correct. I’m not looking at these upcoming four tests with anything other than trepidation with perhaps only Fiji as a given. We had a poor autumn series last year and followed this up with a poor six nations, I really don’t see Toony making any real progress leading up to the six nations and the world cup.

  2. Townsend is ruining the chances of success for the best generation of players we’ve had… well for a generation.

    His reasoning for leaving out Russell was comical & it’s hard to believe he’s still in a job given the steady decline he’s led us on since Vern departed.

    We may end this autumn with four defeats. Bizarrely that may happen and we still continue on with Townsend.

    With Townsend & without Russell. The key to success is swapping those two around!

  3. I do wonder if this might end up being a storm in a teacup, with Ross Thomson being released after the Australia game and Finn getting called up.

  4. A lot to agree with in this article.

    One aspect of this whole saga that is never discussed is how Kinghorn’s move from 15 to 10 removed the only credible competition Hogg had for his place in the team.

    A lot was said last season, mostly correctly, about Russell’s poor form for Scotland (although he did win the game against England for us). But Hogg was equally if not more unimpressive and, had Kinghorn been playing regularly at 15 for Edinburgh, Hogg’s place would surely have been under threat rather than Russell’s. Anyway…

    Moving Kinghorn to 10 was always a Townsend driven decision motivated by a desire to force Russell out. There was a (fairly flimsy IMHO) argument that he was a better fit at 10 for Edinburgh than Jaco but I have yet to see him actually make a game winning difference for Edinburgh and this season his form can only be described as barely adequate.

    More importantly, Scotland emphatically did not need Kinghorn at 10, so from that perspective, the move was trying to solve a problem that did not exist. I have no doubt that Townsend thought that Kinghorn might develop very quickly into a special 10 (the lad does have some high-level skills) but, if anything, the longer he plays there the less effective he is because he simply does not have the game management nous and kicking variations required to keep defences guessing.

    Hastings suffered last season because Kinghorn had to be seen as a credible replacement for Russell. That would have been untenable if Hastings was in the squad. Indeed, for many, it was stretching things to have Kinghorn ahead of Thompson.

    Now Russell is omitted just as dubiously as Hastings was last season but Kinghorn finds himself as the man in possession of the shirt thanks to Townsend’s ridiculous decisions last season.

    Make no mistake, all this has been choreographed from the start. The only problem is that Kinghorn has not developed into the 10 that Townsend hoped for but rather than admit he got that wrong, he prefers to gaslight us about the respective form of these players so he can continue with his ridiculous plan to exclude Russell.

    I pay my money to watch our best players Gregor. Don’t be surprised if even the very conservative Murrayfield crowd tell you that’s what they want this Autumn too.

  5. I agree with much of the above. The whole Townsend fixation with Kinghorn at 10 is so frustrating. He is clearly not an international 10.
    If Townsend was a decent coach he would learn how to man manage his squad to get the best out of all members of the squad.
    The feel good factor from some promising results over the last few years has all but disappeared. I no longer view my trip to France next year with a sense of excited anticipation but rather as a very costly trip guaranteed to end up with failure on the pitch. I can’t see anything other than comprehensive defeats by SA and Ireland.
    I agree that the supporters will look back in years to come with a sense of disappointment at the failure to make the most of a talented group of players.

  6. Part of the equation that is not being discussed is the performance of the forwards. All the 10s being discussed need decent fast ball for go forward. I think that’s been a factor why Russell didnt have a great 6 nations after the England game. Toonys game plan seems to be based more around defence than attack these days so the first thought with any ball we win is to have Price kick it and then to try and recover the ball with our defence on top and a pair of 7s dominating the breakdown. Alas teams have started to unlock our defence. After the England game with a faltering lineout we stopped kicking to the corners from 10 and 15 and then got destroyed by France running the ball back at us. In order to get any of the 10s going we need to win all our set piece ball and our share of breakdown ball and we need fast scrum half service.

  7. Big Al, i agree with you re Russell’s struggles in the 6n last year, a conservative kicking game off 9 and defence orientated back play (of which Harris is GTs “leader”).
    This season Edinburgh with a very physical back row from Crosbie, Mata, Ritchie, Haining, Watson has produced forward dominance but BK has still not produced the plays to win in the 3 tight games.
    I like Thompson but hasn’t much game-time this season, would like to see a few games with Thompson at 10 and Jordan at 12 at Glasgow.
    So in conclusion Russell is without question Scotland’s best 10 but……….

  8. Other than the odd outburst after a particularly rotten game I have generally kept faith with Toonie but it is wearing thin now. His poor decision making and own ego is squandering a golden generation of Scotland players who are capable of delivering so much more than they have for 3 main reasons.
    1. Persisted with Hogg at captain for too long, great player, not a great captain
    2. Personal issues with Russell
    3. Insistence on playing players out of position for no good reason

    The first issue, we will see if I am proven right shortly. I have said all along fullback is not the position your captain should be playing, in Hogg’s case his “I’ll do it myself” attitude which has always been an issue for him, reached a new level with the added pressure of captaincy. A great player and a strong leader and voice within the squad yes, but a captain, no.

    The second issue is the more galling one. If he told what I suspect the real truth may be that he considers Russell a distraction and disruptive influence within the squad so he has left him out then I would understand him, but the tired old excuse of “he needs to find form” doesn’t wash, does he think fans are idiots? I will concede that its a hard one, the tail can’t wag the dog but if you have a player of Russell’s caliber available you find a way to make it work. I’m sorry, and I can hear Craig Manson and the cult imploding yet again but Blair Kinghorn is not and never will be an international level fly half. He’s a very good rugby player and I would happily have him at 15, even in front of Hogg form depending, or as bench cover for 10/15 but this whole Kinghorn at 10 experiment just reeks of someone making a decision and then doubling down on it rather than admit its a failed experiment. All its doing is ruining his career with mediocrity when he could be excelling in his correct position. If the whole playbook was developed around the style of play Kinghorn brings to 10 then it wouldn’t be quite so bad, but it won’t be. As a fairly major aside, who is going to kick? Kinghorn can’t, Hoggy isn’t great, are we then into including someone in the squad purely as a kicker rather than on merit for their position? A strategy I have never been a fan of.

    The third issue seems to be endemic for Toonie. I understand developing flexibility so that your bench can cover various positions, but you don’t start folk out of position.

    I will as ever happily eat my hat but I can see all 4 of these tests being very painful…

    1. Blair Kinghorn is in danger on becoming this generation’s Chris Paterson: a talented player who is played out of position to suit the needs/whims of a coach.

      He should be starting at 15 vs. Australia but Toony has, in Ollie Smith, instead picked a player who’s not yet back to his pre-injury best.

      Both Kinghorn and Smith can be relied upon to give their all, but I fear that Toony’s latest selection wheeze will do neither of them any favours.

  9. You can take seriously the statement that Finn Russell is the best 10 in the world. He’s shown enough for Lions, Racing, Scotland and Barbarians.

    You cannot take seriously the statement that Scotland are anywhere near the best rugby team in the world.

    That the Scotland coach won’t play Russell is a joke.

  10. When on form Russell is the best 10 we have , followed by Hastings , followed by Thomson. We should be starting every game with Russell, with Hastings coming on if Finn isn’t on his game and Ross Thomson learning from both and coming on when there are injuries/ unavailability of the other two. The Kinghorn experiment has shown occasional promise but is one we don’t need.
    That said, there have been periods when Finn drifts out of games , sometimes several games in a row, coupled with his uncomfortable relationship with the Boss put’s his jacket on a shoogly peg.
    The atmosphere on the summer tour (without Russel ) was apparently the best under Townsend and as a coach sometimes it is easier to get the message across and get the best out of a collective without disruptive influences.
    However, in respect of the lack of results / real progress of the team perhaps it is time for Toony to move aside and let us find a coach who can wipe the board clean and try to get the best from all our players including Russel.

    1. What I dont really understand is why Hastings isnt ahead of Kinghorn. A far better all round 10 who plays there consistently at club level ..good distributer, better and more experienced game manager..a good age and a very good kicker.

      It’s just a bizarre situation that should have been explained with honesty not cliches.

      1. Kinghorn looks /sounds like the golden boy, GTs project. The problem is its not working, anyone who watches Edinburgh will see exactly why Kinghorn isn’t an international 10 (if we want to be challenging the top teams). His lack of kicking acumen doesn’t help either. He is brilliant on occasion but…… Hastings is excellent but I fear Kinghorn will be preferred throughout the series.
        Its funny are “we” missing something or is this all GTs stubbornness.
        He should be playing Dempsey Crosbie Ritchie on Saturday

  11. all seems a bit of a mess at moment. However, I guess the priority is 1. World cup 2 6 Nations 3 Autumn tests

    Will we have some idea of where we are after Autumn tests. Not convinced but would trade an indifferent set of results in Autumn tests for improved results in other two

    1. Really don’t see why we prioritise the RWC. We’ll need a minor miracle to progress and have no realistic chance of winning. The 6N is our bread and butter, we’ve never won but it is just about conceivable it would be possible with a big slice of luck and some planets aligning. I really want us to focus on winning the 6N, not really that bothered by the RWC at this stage .

      1. This is what I have always said, I would take a 6N win before a RWC win pretty much every day of the week, that’s what we should be aiming towards rather than this constant 4 year RWC cycle nonsense that gets kicked about all the time. We obviously want to put in a good showing at a RWC but don’t think it should be the basis of what everything is built towards.

      2. I also think we need to establish progress in the 6N first and foremost….
        I have very faint hopes of progressing at the RWC with 2 teams in our group that we really struggle to challenge in any match.
        We have much to improve before we can think of the RWC.
        We could well get skelped this weekend v Australia. We have not played well for a long while…and we dont even have our best players playing.

  12. Last season almost any pundit (who wasn’t a Scotland fan) picked out Finn Russell for his lack of workrate, unfit appearance and general demeanour that he was owed a place in the side.
    He’s also had a couple of disciplinary issues over the last few seasons.

    I want to see Russell in the team, but it’s difficult to know what Townsend should do. I assume by now after a decade working with him at both club and country he understands Russell and what is most likely to motivate him to get in the shape he needs to be in.
    Maybe he’s a player who needs to be brought down a peg from time to time.

  13. Don’t think Townsend is “fixated” with Kinghorn at 10.
    I think barring injury, form and unavailability he’d pick Russell then Hastings.
    Russell is out due to form, so his 1st choice, I guess, is Hastings.

    But Hastings can’t play this weekend because it’s outside the window.

    That’s why Townsend will pick Kinghorn, same as in Summer when Hastings would’ve been picked but got injured.

    1. I feel that had GT just been more clear and honest about the situation with Russell it would at least be understandable regardless of whether we agree or disagree.
      As good as Russell can be on his day…overall last season for Scotland he was poor… he looked unfit, unfocused. He kinda earned being dropped imo.
      He can be an excellent 10…but he can also be a dreadful 10…depending upon how he got out of bed that day or just that the latest song on his pre match warm up play list distracted him….It is fair, for any coach, to expect much better from him…
      Maybe being a father will help balance him as a person.

      As for, saying Hastings will be next up as choice 10 after the Australia match…we’ll see …

      1. Hastings has also been dropped for form reasons in recent past, Townsend sees his improvement but I really think BK starts as first choice. Which fills me with fear frankly.

  14. re the game on saturday – how strong will the Aussies be – in past they havent brought their A team over, or have been a bit under-cooked

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