Gregor Townsend makes his peace with Finn Russell as Richie Gray also returns
Rapprochement was in the air on Monday as Gregor Townsend welcomed back two of his big beasts to the Scotland fold.
Finn Russell and Richie Gray were both named in his 40-man squad for the autumn internationals, which include a Six Nations match with Wales and four Tests in the new Autumn Nations Cup. There is also a warm-up game against Georgia.
Russell returns after a spectacular falling out with the head coach which cast a shadow over this year’s Six Nations and sparked fears that the extravagantly gifted stand-off might be left stuck on 49 caps.
Lockdown, it seems, has given both parties time to reflect and the good news for Scotland fans is that the relationship has been repaired and Russell will join the national squad after the small matter of this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup final.
Russell has been outstanding for Racing 92, propelling the French club to the finale of European club rugby’s elite competition.
Townsend has been impressed by the playmaker’s form. More importantly, coach and player have healed the rift which denied Scotland their creative fulcrum for the Six Nations.
“We’re connecting much more,” Townsend said of his relationship with Russell. “We’ve been in regular conversation, and I think given the time away from rugby for everyone, certainly through that period, Finn has been really keen to come back and play for Scotland. That’s a real positive for everyone.
“He’s in great form, he’ll be coming into our camp after a European final, so we’re looking forward to working with him.”
Russell, 28, has not played for Scotland since the defeat by Japan at the World Cup, a year ago exactly.
Gray’s exile has been longer. The 31-year-old lock won his 55th and most recent cap against Italy in 2018.
He twice turned down a chance to join the World Cup training squad last year for family and fitness reasons.
A head injury ruled him out of the Six Nations but he now appears ready to resume his international career.
Townsend said the player needed no persuasion to return and suggested his summer move to Glasgow Warriors after seven years in France helped.
“There were different circumstances just before the World Cup - his wife had just had a baby, it was the end of a long season in France and he had just come back from injury,” explained the coach.
“It’s very different now that he’s based in Scotland. His body is in a much better place.”
There are three uncapped players in the squad, two of them South Africans who qualify under the old three-year residency rule. Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe gets the call after an impressive 2019-20 season which saw him voted the Pro14 players’ player of the year. He is joined by compatriot and Glasgow prop Oli Kebble. The third new boy is Harlequins scrum-half and ex-Scotland youth international, Scott Steele.
Scotland open their autumn programme against Georgia at BT Murrayfield on Friday 23 October before facing Wales in Llanelli on 31 October in a 2020 Six Nations fixture.
Scotland’s Autumn Nations Cup campaign will begin in Italy on 14 November, and continue with home games against France and Fiji on 22 and 28 November. There will be a final classification match on the weekend of 5-6 December.
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