Simon Zebo: 'Finn Russell has enough credit in the bank - his omission is disappointing'

Gregor Townsend cited form as a reason for leaving Finn Russell out of his Autumn Nations Series squad

In the lead up to Scotland’s first Autumn Nations Series fixture of 2022, much of the conversation surrounding Gregor Townsend’s team has been centred around the omission of fly-half Finn Russell.

A mainstay in a Scotland jersey since making his debut in 2014, Townsend cited “form and consistency” for leaving out the 30-year-old from the squad. Favouring Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and Ross Thompson instead, in his next outing for club side Racing 92, Russell bagged 18 points in a win over current Top 14 champions Montpellier.

On Wednesday, the mercurial playmaker's skills and kicking coach Philippe Doussy explained to The Times how surprised he was at Russell's non-inclusion in Townsend’s plans.

“For us here at Racing in this first period of the season, he has been our X Factor, seriously impressive on every level – his approach to the games, in training, in his individual work and preparation,” Doussy said.

“He has lost weight, does so much video analysis and is always looking for extras after training. Always with a smile on his face.”

While Townsend is preaching that form is Russell’s obstacle to being his country’s starting fly-half, there is also much belief that there is a more fundamental problem between player and coach. It all goes back to 2020 when Russell was excluded from team camp following a breach of protocol, before returning to the set-up later in the year.

Following Scotland’s victory over Italy in the 2022 Six Nations, Russell - along with five other players - was disciplined for another protocols breach. This involved six players leaving the team hotel in Edinburgh, team captain Stuart Hogg among the group, the Exeter Chiefs full-back now having been replaced by Jamie Ritchie as skipper.

A week after that incident, Russell was dropped to the bench for the clash with Ireland and Kinghorn started in his place. Townsend, at the time, said that “the selection is an opportunity for those who are given that honour and privilege”, before resting Russell along with a host of senior players in the summer.

Speaking at the Autumn Nations Series’ launch event, Russell’s former teammate in Paris, Simon Zebo, believes that the fly-half should've had enough credit in the bank to have been selected for the run of fixtures that includes Tests with Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Argentina.

“You should be able to find a way to let him shine,” the Ireland international said. “You put an arm around him as opposed to that tough love kind of thing.

“Saying one thing like form, I wouldn’t necessarily say that is the right reason to leave him out. I think he has enough credit in the bank for what he has done for Scotland and on his day, he’s the best 10 in the world without question.

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“There is nobody close to him in terms of what he is able to do with the rugby ball. I found it very, I suppose, disappointing for Finn primarily, and the reasons behind it. I thought there was probably a breakdown in the relationship and personal reasons behind it.

“It is not a form thing, it is not an ability thing. You can’t say to me he’s not in the top three fly-halves in Scotland. That’s just absolutely ridiculous. Finn has a baby coming now, so he will be kept busy, and he is playing really well with Racing.

“He’ll just keep his head down, keep working, but those reasons for not including him in the squad, I wouldn’t be in agreement with them. It’s disappointing.”

Taking on Australia on Saturday afternoon outside of World Rugby’s Test window, Russell would have been unavailable for selection in any case due to playing domestically outside of Scotland, meaning it is Edinburgh’s Kinghorn that will be pulling the strings at fly-half, with Glasgow Warriors' Ross Thompson on the bench.

Up against Dave Rennie’s Wallabies, it will certainly be a challenge at Murrayfield, but just a year out from the Rugby World Cup in France, chopping and changing at fly-half certainly leaves a question mark over how the side will fare in a pool that contains South Africa, Ireland, Tonga and Romania.

Jamie Ritchie will make his first appearance as Scotland captain this weekend and is joined in the back-row by both Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson. Former Exeter lock Sam Skinner starts alongside Grant Gilchrist, as Pierre Schoeman, Dave Cherry and Zander Fagerson complete the front-row.

Ali Price starts at scrum-half with Kinghorn outside of him, as Sione Tuipulotu and Mark Bennett complete the midfield.  The backline is Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Ollie Smith, the team likely to have their work cut out against an Australia side that are looking to build confidence after a topsy-turvy Rugby Championship campaign.

Simon Zebo will feature on Autumn Nations Series matches exclusive on Prime Video.