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6N: Absent Russell looms over Ireland-Scotland matchup

Four new caps, two new captains, one new coach, and the resumption of a rivalry that dates to 1877 should be hyping the latest Ireland-Scotland matchup in the Six Nations. Except, the spotlight is on a player who is deliberately trying to avoid it.

Finn Russell. He should be running out at Lansdowne Road on Saturday for his milestone 50th cap as Scotland's chief playmaker. Instead, Russell is far away in Paris, where his teammates must be hoping he's crafting a convincing apology that will get back him in the team.

Scotland's odds of an opening weekend win against Ireland were already slim before Russell quit their training camp last week in Edinburgh. His crime was excessive drinking at the team hotel, followed by missing a practice, followed by leaving the camp instead of staying to help the squad prepare to try and win in Dublin for only the second time in 20 years.

"We've moved on," coach Gregor Townsend says about Russell, and without a clue when his star flyhalf will make himself available in the championship. It's a blow to Scotland hopes of avoiding the wooden spoon, and a lose-lose scenario for Russell.

If Scotland win in replacement Adam Hastings' first Six Nations start, Russell will be missed far less fondly. If Scotland lose, Russell will be pilloried more for letting down the team he's led in the last two Rugby World Cups.

His teammates are giving the affair a positive spin. Recalled center Huw Jones says it isn't a big deal within the squad, while hooker Fraser Brown hopes it will galvanize them. Brown says they have to pull together "because we have new individuals coming in and also because we've under-performed over the last couple of years.

“That expectation and drive from us has got to be there, and you have to be tight as a group off the pitch because you can't be expected to perform in those dark, pressurized environments on the pitch unless you are all together, pulling in the right direction, and have got each other's back.”

Jones backs Hastings to shine. “As soon as Finn left, we all just got behind Adam and focused on the weekend,” Jones says. "He hasn't had a lot of games at international level. He had a start against Russia in the World Cup when he went really well. This could be the opportunity that really sets him up.

“He won young player of the year in the Pro14 last season and on the back of that he has matured a lot, his game management has improved. He is still the same silky player he was last season but he has added more to his game. His kicking has been brilliant and he is a pretty good defender. He has got all the attributes you need and, with the team around him, I think he will go really well.”

New Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, facing new Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg, regards Hastings for Russell as a "like for like" change. “They've sort of played it down a little bit,” Sexton says. “They seem to be happy with where they're at and he's a quality player and one that we are going to have to be fully switched on for because he has a full bag of tricks.”

Ireland, under new coach Andy Farrell, and Scotland are throwing new No. 8s at each other, 21-year-old Caelan Doris, a former Ireland Under-20s captain, and 29-year-old Nick Haining, an Australian-born former wing.


Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Peter O'Mahony, John Cooney, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg (captain), Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Nick Haining, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Rory Sutherland. Reserves: Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Ben Toolis, Cornell du Preez, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Chris Harris.

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