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Neil Drysdale: Gregor Townsend badly needs Scotland to continue winning run against Australia

Yes, he did it again. Finn Russell celebrates with the Calcutta Cup.
Yes, he did it again. Finn Russell celebrates with the Calcutta Cup.

If you cast a glance at the Australian media this week, chances are you will find scant coverage of their rugby union tour of the Northern Hemisphere.

Because, without diminishing its status too much, the sport doesn’t command anything like the passion which exists for cricket, rugby league and Aussie Rules in a country where even “soccer” enjoys a growing popularity and swimming is a national pastime.

The Wallabies might be travelling to Edinburgh in a few days, intent on improving upon their recent miserable record at Murrayfield – they lost 15-13 last November and were hammered 53-24 at the previous meeting between the sides in 2017 – but the current squad possess little of the pizzazz or larger-than-life personalities of their compatriots who used to lock horns with their Scottish counterparts 30 years ago.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend needs his side to fire in the autumn internationals.

And that’s one of the problems for a pursuit which is struggling to spread its appeal beyond its traditional power base: where are the Messis, the Haalands and Salahs in the oval-ball pursuit, where are the impresarios who can excite and entertain an audience even when it doesn’t know the difference between an inside centre and a lock forward?

Absurd decision by Townsend to leave Russell out of series

That brings us neatly to Finn Russell, the talismanic Scot who was once again at the heart of Racing 92’s victory over reigning French champions Montpellier at the weekend, landing four penalties, three conversions and acting as the catalyst for a trio of his side’s tries while they edged out their opponents 38-31 in a thrilling contest.

His performance simply accentuated the absurdity of Gregor Townsend’s decision to leave Russell out of the forthcoming Autumn Nations Series after he was told by the Scotland coach to improve his form and consistency.

Okay, we know this duo aren’t bosom buddies and won’t be exchanging Christmas cards in a couple of months, but the stand-off is one of the few players in his country’s colours with a genuine Wow factor and the ability to leave audiences gasping with his often electrifying sleight of hand.

It isn’t as if Townsend was a pillar of stability during his own international career. I still recall a match in the mid-1990s where he gifted not one, but two tries to the opposition by having passes intercepted and that wasn’t an isolated case.

At his best, he could be mesmerising, such as when he released Gavin Hastings with the “Toonie flip”, which allowed the latter to sprint under the posts against France in Paris in 1995.

It was exhilarating, explosive, X Factor stuff which obscured the less happy afternoons on his CV.

Yet here we are, in a climate where rugby genuinely needs a boost – with clubs going bust, old debates about a British League resurfacing and the authorities dealing with lawsuits over the link between head knocks and dementia – but the likes of Russell will be missing in the weeks ahead from the international circuit. Pathetic.

‘Scotland on brink of going places without reaching destination’

Saturday’s contest is also being staged outwith the agreed international window, so it will feature the best combination that Townsend can cobble together.

But, although it is little more than a glorified friendly, the Borderer and his Scottish Rugby associates sorely need the result to go in their favour.

Jonah Lomu scoring a try against Ireland in the 1995 Rugby World Cup

It hasn’t been an auspicious year for them, following a disappointing Six Nations campaign and a frustrating 2-1 series loss in Argentina, and with the World Cup approaching in 2023, there’s still a sense that Townsend – who was fortunate to survive the debacle in that tournament in 2019 – is caught between two styles.

Fast, expansive and occasionally thrilling attack. Or grind-and-grunt physicality focused around a powerful pack.

Sometimes, it’s a bit of both, occasionally neither. Hence the feeling that Scotland are always on the brink of going places without reaching their destination.

Australia will face similar problems

It doesn’t help that supporters will have to tackle similar problems this weekend with a rail strike promising plenty of chaos, but the Australians are hardly in great shape either.

On the contrary, they were thrashed 48-17 by Argentina during the summer in San Juan and their new assistant coach, Laurie Fisher, has joined Dave Rennie with a giant task in rebuilding a team which is miles removed from the halcyon days when John Eales, Michael Lynagh and David Campese took the globe by storm.

Scotland’s Finn Russell excels for Racing 92, but has been dropped by Scotland.

Fisher said in typically blunt fashion: “This tour (of Europe) is all about really, really developing our basics, valuing our basics and bedding all that down. Ground zero. We’re going to get that right and we’re going to grow from there.

“I saw one clip from that Argentina game and said: ‘This can’t be us. If that’s us, then we may as well not go to the World Cup at all. We’ve got nothing”.

It’s a totally different environment from the days when Campese – who turned 60 last week – was in his pomp and terrorising opponents with his magician’s bag of tricks.

He kindly wrote the foreword to Southern Comfort, my book about Borders rugby, and finished with this heartfelt sentiment: “The sense of adventure and desire to entertain should be encouraged by coaches, not sacrificed in the desire to win at all costs.”

Goodbye to all that in the modern sport!