TO SAY that Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell have not always seen eye to eye would be a gross understatement. The Scotland coach may have played in Russell’s position of stand-off, but the mutual understanding which might have been expected to arise from that fact has often been conspicuous by its absence.

Russell’s decision to walk out of the national squad in 2020 was probably the most dramatic demonstration that not all was well between the two men, while more recently Townsend omitted the Racing 92 playmaker from his squad for last year’s Autumn Nations Series, implausibly claiming that three other fly-halves were in better form.

At those times and at others, the pair’s relationship has seemed to have reached breaking point if not gone beyond it. It was therefore of serious significance when Townsend sat down at yesterday’s launch in London of this year’s Guinness Six Nations Championship and proceeded to praise Russell not merely as one of Scotland’s best performers of recent times - that much is self-evident - but as one of the greatest players from any country ever to pull on a rugby shirt.

The encomium from the head coach is no guarantee that all will henceforth be harmonious between him and the 30-year-old player, but it does at the very least show that Townsend is willing and able to put any subjective clash of personalities to one side and simply appreciate the many virtues of a player upon whom, more than any other, Scotland’s hopes of success depend in a year which will end with the Rugby World Cup in France.

“He’s one of the most skilful players to ever play the game - not just playing now, but to ever play the game,” Townsend said. “In that position you’ve got to take a big role in the leadership of the game, and that requires work and preparation - and Finn does that.

“You’ve got to practise a lot of watching rugby, and experience rugby, to know when to pull the trigger. And there’s a lot of discipline that has to go into it, to make the decision whether to offload or to kick.

“People change as well throughout their rugby careers and their lives. You’re a different person at 20, 21 years old than you are at 30. Finn has had changes in life - he just became a dad for the first time.

“He’s coming into his prime years. He’s coming into that time where physically you’re still able to compete and do what you want to do, but you have that knowledge of ten years playing at No 10 and are aware of what a defence might look like after two or three phases.    

“So it’s a great opportunity for him - this championship, and obviously the World Cup too.”

After being left out of the squad in the autumn, Russell was eventually called up when Adam Hastings had to drop out through injury, and according to Townsend he hit his best form straight away. “Finn was outstanding in the autumn,” the coach added. “It was probably the best he’d played for Scotland in two or three years. 

“He played at a really high level against New Zealand and gave an even better performance against Argentina.

“He was great around the group, like he always is. He’s very good to work with. He’s now at a level of experience where he understands the game and what defences are going to do. 

“Physically, he’s in really good shape too. He had a week off for Racing over Christmas, which I think will help him during the Six Nations because he does play a lot of rugby over in France. He’ll be looking forward to the championship like we are.

“He’s a very competitive player, Finn, and this doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s a laid-back person and he’s even laid back on the field, but he’s competitive.”

Sitting next to his coach at the launch, Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie agreed that Russell was an easy person to work with, as well as being a very conscientious one when it comes to doing his homework on the opposition.  “I’d echo what Gregor said,” the Edinburgh forward stated. “He’s not a confrontational character, he’s not a controversial character. He’s a great person to have around, a great person for the young guys to learn from - for us all to learn from, in fact. 

“He’s really diligent in and around his analysis. He’s always on his laptop watching training back and watching the opposition we’ve got coming up, looking for opportunities. The stuff you see at the weekends doesn’t happen by accident. He’s a great guy for us to have around the squad.”

Scotland’s Six Nations campaign gets under way a week on Saturday with a trip to Twickenham to play England.