Scotland World Cup preview: Anything possible with Russell on form

Scotland Rugby World Cup preview: Gregor Townsend’s men must straddle the fine line between humiliation and adulation once more… but anything is possible with Finn Russell in full flow

  • Scotland head to Japan with the same predicament that has often plagued them 
  • They are not expected to win their group, but reaching the last eight is a must  
  • It leaves no margin for error for Gregor Townsend, but there’s cause for optimism
  • With a fully-firing Finn Russell, Scotland’s backline can do damage to any side  

As it has ever been, there is a fine line between humiliation and adulation at this Rugby World Cup for Scotland.

Safe passage through a group that contains the No 2 ranked side in the world in Ireland and hosts Japan is the minimum expected of Gregor Townsend’s men.

Anything beyond that would exceed everything this country has produced on a rugby field since 1991. Anything less would be an abject failure.

That is the pressure Scotland’s head coach and his players must bear when they set off for the land of the rising sun this month. Not that it should be a weight that cripples a squad Townsend himself has labelled the strongest he has ever been able to call upon in his two years in charge.

As is ever the case with Scotland, there is a fine line between success and failure out in Japan


vs Ireland – Yokohama, 8.45am BST, Sunday September 22 

vs Samoa – Kobe, 11.15am BST, Monday september 30

vs Russia – Shizuoka, 8.15am BST, Wednesday October 9

vs Japan – Yokohama, 11.45am BST, Sunday October 13  

It was the same sort of pressures that sculpted their memorable campaign four years ago. A do-or-die encounter at St James’ Park against Samoa produced a pulsating victory by the smallest of margins.

Eight days later, the angst that had been so apparent in the North East evaporated at Twickenham as Scotland came within seconds of only their second-ever World Cup semi-final appearance. 

That, Stuart Hogg has argued, is a goal well within their reach this time around. But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. 

In essence, the Scots’ campaign boils down to two key group stage clashes.

An opener against Ireland in Yokohama is far from ideal for either side, but it gives Scotland a chance to get at the pool favourites before they have a chance to get up and running. 

Lose, and they essentially face the wait for a quarter-final play-off against the hosts Japan three weeks later. 

Gregor Townsend has opted against taking (L-R) Chris Hutchinson and Huw Jones to Japan 

Darcy Graham epitomises the brand of electric attacking rugby Townsend likes to promote 

In between there are clashes with Samoa once more – a far less fearful prospect than they were four years ago – and Russia, the token European qualifiers. 

If Scotland are to replicate their best ever performance, there are those who might read into the omens.

Their route to the 1991 semi-final saw them top a group that included both Ireland and Japan, beating both convincingly. Of course, there is a sizeable difference between facing the pair in the familiar surroundings of Murrayfield and coming up against them on the other side of the world.  


Finn Russell

Undoubedtly the star of the national side, Scotland’s hopes for this tournament will largely rest on the shoulders of their fly-half. 

Proven time and again what he can do on his day, he will need to be at his beguiling best against Ireland if Gregor Towsend’s men are to get off on the right foot.  

Finn Russell will be key for the Scots

There are other promising precedents, too. Not least Ireland’s uncanny knack of buckling time and again on the biggest stage of them all. Then again, it is something that Scotland are quite familiar with, too.

Scotland’s biggest strength has also been their weakness. Their cavalier approach and exciting brand of attacking rugby has produced some memorable results under Townsend, but also days to forget, too.

For the dismantling of Eddie Jones’s England and beating Australia in their own backyard, there are the eyebrow-raising defeats by Fiji and a first ever loss to the USA.

Aside from their outstanding Calcutta Cup comeback, there was little to point to at this year’s Six Nations to suggest Scotland are ready to be counted among serious contenders at the top of the game. 

Their disastrous trip to Nice in the warm-ups only seemed to back this up.

But there are signs Townsend is learning, his squad selection suggesting as much.

There was no sentimentality shown towards Huw Jones, one of the architects of that memorable Murrayfield victory over the English 18 months ago, whose recent form rightly taken into account.

And no Chris Hutchinson, either, despite his scintillating form with Northampton and an eye-catching display in Tbilisi.

Richie Gray twice turned down the chance to be included in Townsend’s World Cup squad 

Finn Russell has shown himself to be one of the most influential fly-halves in the world game

Instead of focusing on all-out attack, there is a measured approach, one that sees Peter Horne selected – a reliable source at either centre or fly-half, and a third option that could prove vital in keeping Finn Russell firing when it matters.


Gregor Townsend

It hasn’t been the smoothest of preparations for the Scotland coach, with a chastening defeat in Nice a less than ideal start to their warm-up fixtures.

The Richie Gray debacle has clearly left a sour taste too, but despite concerns definsively, Townsend won’t stray too far from his attacking instincts. 

He insists he has been able to call upon his strongest team yet since taking charge in 2017, and if he can put out his preferred starting XV in Yokohama against Ireland, Scotland have a chance to carve out a path towards something special.   

Townsend is known for his attacking style 

The undoubted talisman of Townsend’s squad, it is likely that Russell’s form will hold the key to a successful tournament. If he can replicate the imperious form he discovers against England on all occasions against others, the world could be forced to sit up and take note.

He’ll be surrounded by a strong cast in the backline too, by Hogg – the other truly world class talent in Townsend’s squad – Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, and Sean Maitland too. 

Sam Johnson and Duncan Taylor are an obvious first choice pairing in the centre, and there are few players as reliable with the boot as Greig Laidlaw.

There is some concern over the pack, the loss of Sam Skinner a sizeable blow to the squad and the player himself, who has had no luck in a blue jersey to date —his Six Nations also hampered by an ankle problem earlier this year.

But the Richie Gray sideshow – the Toulouse lock turning down the chance to join the squad twice after an impressive campaign rediscovering his form in France – has been the only other sour note, leaving the coach virtually unhindered by injuries in selecting his 31.  

The captaincy has been handed to 29-year-old hooker Stuart McInally, as opposed to one of the older heads in the team to have previously held the title, such as John Barclay or Laidlaw.

It is a sign that Townsend is looking to the future, and not the past, with this group of players. 

A future that has the opportunity to burn bright in the land of the rising sun.   

Stuart McInally has been picked as captain ahead of Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay 

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