Finn Russell holds key to Scotland’s World Cup hopes

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Scotland coach Gregor Townsend believes he has his strongest squad in his two-year tenure but if they are to shine at the World Cup then Finn Russell will have to be at his sparkling best.

The dynamic fly-half, who turns 27 this month, is the key man as Scotland seek to progress past the quarter-final stage for the first time since 1991, when they lost to England in the semi-finals.

That match, a 9-6 defeat, is remembered for Gavin Hastings’ missed close-range penalty, which still haunts the former fullback.

Russell, who was within seconds of playing in a semi-final in 2015 but for a controversial penalty awarded to Australia, is the heartbeat of the team – if he plays well then Scotland generally click.

His no-look passes and dummies spark an exciting backline and he has no intention of changing his style, even if it carries a high risk.

“I need some consistency but I’m still going to keep playing the way I’m going to play,” said Russell, who plays his club rugby in France, where scrum-half and former captain Greig Laidlaw also plies his trade.

“At the World Cup, with four group games, you need to be at the top of your game to get out of the group. I don’t want to look back and think ‘if only I did this or that differently’.”

Hooker Stuart McInally may wear the captain’s armband but Russell is also a leader, as he demonstrated when he pleaded successfully with Townsend for a change of tactics at half-time with the Scots trailing 31-7 to England in this year’s Six Nations clash.

So dramatic was the turnaround that they led 38-31 until a late converted try secured a draw for a shell-shocked English side.

Russell is in the mould of Townsend in his playing prime, a dashing back with an eye for a break where others would hold back.

But the Racing 92 player says it will take a team effort for Scotland to go deep into the tournament.

“I don’t believe it’s one individual that’s going to get us to the quarters or semis or final, wherever we get to,” he said. “I think it’s going to have to be everyone on the same page.”

Russell should be reassured by Townsend’s belief that the squad is full of talent, although their inconsistency alarms many outside the camp.

There is little doubting the ability of the backs – the combative and dangerous Stuart Hogg at fullback would probably get into the starting XVs of most of the top-ranked sides.

However, to thrive the backs need the ball and there are doubts over the scrum and how much they will feed back to Laidlaw, Russell and others.

The loss of Exeter second-row forward Sam Skinner to injury is a big blow in terms of the line-out and mobility but one that Townsend hopes will be made up for by New Zealand-born flanker Blade Thomson, who is fit for duty following several issues with concussion.

Townsend’s side face an immediate test of their credentials against Ireland, their main rivals to top Pool A. Their group also includes Japan, Russia and Samoa.

Provided they get through a potentially awkward encounter against the hosts, either world champions New Zealand or South Africa will almost certainly be their quarter-final opponents.

Townsend is happy with the mix of players at his disposal.

“Success would be playing to our best,” he said. “Playing to our potential has been our aim from the start.

“We know and we’ve seen it as when we play to our best we are a match for any team in the world.”

“We have a stronger squad now than we’ve ever had,” he added. “We’ve never been in a better position over the last few years to play at our best.”