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Zebo can only watch on as Scots let Russell pull strings

Shining light: Finn Russell
Shining light: Finn Russell
David Kelly

By David Kelly

At least one Parisian playmaker in exile will get the opportunity to shine this weekend.

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To the disappointment of some Irish rugby supporters - and others, such as Stephen Ferris and Ronan O'Gara who have added their voices to a recurring conversation - the man in question will not be Simon Zebo, but his team-mate Finn Russell, the conductor of the Scots' potentially lightning attack.

Unlike Ireland, the Scots could not afford to jettison one of their star players once he opted to take up the lucrative - north of €800,000 yearly - offer to join the jet-set, jet-heeled joué mavericks in the French capital.

Notwithstanding what some may say about Ireland's style of play, their Grand Slam debunked any argument that Zebo's omission was a bad call, albeit last Saturday's rude awakening may have revised some opinions.

It is different for Scotland who have half as many professional teams to select from and therein a weaker cohort of players.

Remarkably, as they kicked off the Six Nations against Italy with an expected bonus-point win, they managed to do so without an entire squad of 23 players due to injury.

Events proved they were all dispensable and, even though some of them will return to the mix this weekend, it remains the case that Russell is the one player Scotland can ill-afford to lose.

He is simply that important.

Last weekend, admittedly against dire Italy, Russell was the stand-out performer, with his coach, Gregor Townsend, confirming that in his mind it was the pivot's best performance for his country.

High praise indeed after the 41st cap of the 26-year-old's five-year career from the main man.

Schmidt and Zebo rarely shared such public intimacies; they are different characters and Zebo admits that his philosophy is far removed from that of the Kiwi.

Unlike Russell, an equally divisive, enigmatic figure. Takes one to know one, perhaps.

Which is where Townsend comes in. Seven years ago, Russell couldn't even get a game for Stirling County when Townsend spotted him at Falkirk, a second division club, and almost saw a mirrored reflection.

The gifted hands, the clever feet; also, the inchoate uncertainty of a youngster unable to decisively control a game.

In 2012, Townsend took the tyro under his wing to add a scintillating edge to a developing Glasgow Warriors project. Within three years, the intoxicating combination would deliver a PRO12 title.

Since assuming the national job from the comparably ascetic Vern Cotter, the duo have continued to flourish, admittedly with the familiar crinkles which once accompanied Townsend's playing career.

Who else but Russell could miss a conversion in front of the sticks one year (2017 against France) before delivering the sublime pass of the tournament a year later (in the stunning defeat of England last season)?

Since moving to Paris, his game has flourished in the enabling atmosphere of a side who encourage flair and freedom, built on a solid base, far removed from the rickety structure within which Johnny Sexton's sabbatical from these shores floundered.

"The mindset is just a little bit different in how to approach the game," Zebo said last week. "There's definitely a bit more freedom for the likes of myself and Finn Russell and all the other dangerous backs we have. It's very much play what you see, risk and reward.

"Finn is a great distributor, he plays with no blinkers on and with one little call here and there, there's no wasting time, it happens immediately. He's willing to try anything anywhere without thinking about the risk."

But, with Scotland combining Edinburgh grunt with Glasgow flair, Russell is also now more adept to control a game than perhaps he once was.

"He's got a good balance to his game now," said Mike Blair, Townsend's assistant. "In France you typically kick a little bit more than you'd imagine."

After lighting up Scotland's opening day win, he and his team will be brimful of confidence against an Irish side who, surely, will not stitch together successive slumps from their pack and half-backs.

Sexton didn't play in this fixture two years ago when Ireland dominated up front but were undone out wide with Russell firing a back-line led by the dazzling Stuart Hogg.

"Finn is up against not only the best stand-off in the world but the best player in the world," warned Townsend.

"You want to take on the best players. Finn always seems to rise to the occasion, the bigger the game, the better the stand-off opposite him - and Sexton is the best in the world right now."

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