Gregor Townsend praised Finn Russell’s professionalism as he handed the recalled stand-off an instant return to Scotland’s starting XV for Sunday’s showdown with New Zealand.
The high-profile 30-year-old was controversially left out of the initial squad for the autumn internationals, with the head coach citing concerns about his “form and consistency” for Racing 92 as he instead opted to place his faith in Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings to be his main options at number 10.
However, Russell – who has had a strained relationship with Townsend at times in recent years – was called up at the start of this week after Hastings withdrew following an injury sustained in last weekend’s victory over Fiji.
“Finn’s been excellent,” said Townsend, when asked how the fly-half had slotted back into the international set-up for the first time since March.
Ahead of Sunday's clash with New Zealand, Head Coach Gregor Townsend talks through his team selection.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 11, 2022
“He came into the squad on Tuesday, he’s got other things going on in his life which are very important, his partner Emma is close to giving birth, but since he’s come in he’s been very professional. He’s trained well, he’s led the attack very well.”
Russell’s absence has dominated the narrative throughout the autumn campaign but Townsend explained that his return to international prominence is down to a combination of Hastings’ injury and his own upturn in form in recent weeks.
“I’m happy with his form (at club level),” he said. “I think I mentioned when I announced the squad that he had been playing better in the two weeks before we announced it.
“But at the time Blair had played in the summer tour for us and been playing well for Edinburgh and also Adam Hastings has been outstanding for Gloucester this season.
“Finn and Adam wouldn’t have been available to play the Australia game (which fell outside the international window) so Blair started and Ross Thompson was on the bench.
“We backed Adam and Blair last week (against Fiji). Adam played well and unfortunately picked up an injury so he’s desperately disappointed to miss out this weekend.
“But for us to be able to call up someone who has played very well for the team in the past, has played against New Zealand a few times, and most importantly has been in really good form the last few weeks, it’s great to have that depth in that position.
“It’s a positive thing that Finn’s played well since he wasn’t selected. It’s a great response. Whether that’s a response to not being selected or he’s just been focusing on what he was doing with his club, we’ve got a player in form and physically he’s in great shape.
“This opportunity has come about because of Adam’s injury but we’re delighted to bring Finn back in at a time when he’s playing really well.”
Townsend has no concerns about Russell starting his first Scotland match in eight months against the might of the All Blacks.
“There were a number of players who played last week who hadn’t played for eight months – Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg, guys that missed out on the summer tour,” said Townsend.
“If players are going to perform and fit back in the team, it’s easier to do that if you’ve played for the team on a number of occasions, which Finn has.”
Russell’s return appears to have led to Kinghorn, who was the first-choice number 10 in the summer tour and started against Australia, slipping down the pecking order. The Edinburgh player is a substitute on Sunday.
“Blair was on the bench last week so he’s not been demoted,” said Townsend.
“He told me he’s disappointed and that’s great because you want players to be upset because that means they believe they can do a better job than the player you’ve picked.
“Blair had a number of opportunities to develop on the summer tour and he has developed really well, Adam had the chance last week and was taking it until he got his injury.
“We just believe that for a game at this level, experience counts for a lot and Finn certainly brings that. The cohesion he has with Ali Price is important too so we feel those are really strong factors for us this week.”
In addition to Russell replacing Hastings, the other two changes in the Scotland XV see Fraser Brown and Sione Tuipulotu replace George Turner and Cam Redpath.