'Mediator needed in Russell-Townsend dispute before it's too late'

Some players have noticed an edge between Russell and Townsend
Some players have noticed an edge between Russell and Townsend

When the dam burst and Finn Russell departed the scene earlier in the week this was the brief, but knowing, response from one Scotland player: "No surprise."

The comment spoke to a situation that some say has been developing for a while now, not just something that happened in the bar of the team hotel on Sunday night or, for that matter, in the Twickenham dressing-room at half-time in the Calcutta Cup in March.

Getting clarity on what has occurred here is not easy. Different people are saying different things. What we know is that there is, so to speak, a stand-off between the stand-off and the former stand-off, between Russell, who is now in exile in Paris, and Townsend, who is picking up the pieces after the exit of his most high-profile player.

Russell's life has changed remarkably in the last year, going from Glasgow Warriors to the super rich behemoths of Racing, from Scotstoun to Paris and all the money and glamour it entails.

'Some players have noticed edge between them'

He is a world class 10, a player with a magician's touch but also a player upon whom so much rests, especially for his country. That pressure on him to perform, when opposing teams have him firmly in their sights, can be difficult. His demeanour is that of a wise-cracker - and he is - but he's far from care-free in his approach to rugby. He's desperate to win and carries a burden because of it.

Some players have noticed an edge between himself and his national team coach. "Undeniable" says one. "I think it's fair to say that Finn feels as if he's being picked on at times when things go wrong. Gregor will disagree with that. Everybody wants the same thing - success - but there's been issues. Was I shocked when I heard the news the other day? Really, really disappointed, but not shocked, no."

Following on from the let-down of 2019, the new year has started grimly for the coach. Since the news broke that the fly-half had left the international camp less than a fortnight before the beginning of the Six Nations, and a game against Ireland that would have seen him winning his 50th cap, there's been versions of the truth put out there, each of them contradictory in detail, each of them with the potential of adding fuel to the fire and making a rapprochement more difficult.

In one narrative, Russell was supposed to have left the team hotel around 10pm on Sunday night after drinking one too many. In another he left at around midnight after drinking considerably more than one too many and after dismissing the counsel of some senior players, who were, and remain, angered by his actions. In that version, before being collected by his family and taken away from the team hotel, he had a brief conversation with Townsend and was told his ill-discipline had cost him his place in the squad for the Ireland game. Only those present know the absolute truth. Both parties cannot be right.

Russell led Scotland's comeback from 31-0 down at Twickenham, after what he called a half-time "argument" with Townsend
Russell led Scotland's comeback from 31-0 down at Twickenham, after what he called a half-time "argument" with Townsend

Both men lose out if dispute continues

Russell didn't turn up for training on Monday. One scenario had it that Townsend and Russell met later on Monday and had a positive meeting lasting hours, a deep, clear-the-air chat during which the player accepted his punishment of expulsion from the squad for the Ireland game, expressed contrition for overstepping the mark in the bar the night before, promised to apologise to his team-mates and emphasised his intention to play a full part in training on Thursday and Friday, particularly in helping Adam Hastings, who will take his place in the 10 jersey in Dublin.

That version has it that at some point between Monday and Tuesday Russell had a major change of heart and decided he wasn't sticking around in Edinburgh for the week and was heading back to Paris instead. The alternative version is that Russell was told officially that he could return to Paris and that the leaks about him 'walking out of the camp' are untrue.

Townsend, it is said, is disappointed at what has gone down. Russell, it is said, is angered by what his camp see as spin put on the story by the SRU, an organisation that his father, a former SRU employee, was unceremoniously removed from and who he subsequently won a case of unfair dismissal against. This is where we are at. A cluster-shambles.

Russell will not play against Ireland in Dublin and given that the England game is only a week later it's a bit much to think that everything will be resolved in time for the arrival of the World Cup finalists in Edinburgh. Beyond that, it's anybody's guess when Russell will play for Scotland again.

To get to a resolution, sources close to the Scotland squad say that Russell is going to have to show humility and apologise for his boozing episode on Sunday. Based on the posts that he's liked on social media that acceptance of responsibility might be a while in coming, if it comes at all.

There's an entrenchment at work here at the moment and it suits neither party. Russell misses out on playing for his country while Townsend goes into a campaign that might define his career as Scotland coach without his most influential talent. The longer this goes on the more both men lose. A mediator is required before it's too late.