2016 6 Nations: Why Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell Are Crucial for Scotland

Daniel ReyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2016

Greig Laidlaw (left) celebrates Finn Russell's (centre) score against Japan during the World Cup
Greig Laidlaw (left) celebrates Finn Russell's (centre) score against Japan during the World CupClint Hughes/Associated Press

Scotland have lost their opening two matches of the 2016 RBS Six Nations, but to arrest their slump, they will need Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell to be at their best. It is no overstatement to say they are crucial for Scotland for the rest of the championship.

Scotland's revival under coach Vern Cotter has been aided by the residency qualification of prop WP Nel and John Hardie, eligible through his Scottish grandmother, but the platform the pack provides is never enough unless half-backs Laidlaw and Russell tick.

As the Scotsman's Duncan Smith noted during the 2015 Rugby World Cup after Scotland had triumphed impressively over Japan:

The burgeoning partnership of Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell could be the one that drives Scotland on to the long-awaited sunlit uplands.

Russell’s have-a-go mindset is the breath of fresh air we have been crying out for and there are growing signs that his gallusness is nicely complemented by the coolness of the “old head” inside him.

Laidlaw, as captain of Scotland and the team's goalkicker, relishes responsibility. The heartbeat of the team is very reliable off the tee and against Wales last week showed an ingredient that has been missing of late from his game: bursts from the base of the ruck.

The scrum-half made two mini-breaks in the lead-up to Tommy Seymour's try that got Scotland on the front foot and the Welsh defence scrambling.

Scotland need to see more of that from Laidlaw. Occupying the defence's vision provides more time for Russell outside him at fly-half, and it was that extra moment of breathing space that allowed Russell to deliver the pinpoint kick for Seymour's score (see video above).

Laidlaw's understudy, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, is a more natural runner but is quite clearly the No. 2 scrum-half behind the captain and kicker.

Russell is a talented but inconsistent No. 10. For Seymour's try, he spotted winger Tom James slightly out of position and delivered his kick as late as possible to keep the defence guessing.

Russell has his moments. Under pressure gathering a Welsh kick, he skilfully stepped athletic flanker Justin Tipuric with a smart dummy when Scotland were under pressure inside their own 22.

But Russell is far from the finished article. All fly-halves make mistakes with their kicks, but kicking straight down Jonathan Davies' throat when Scotland had precious turnover ball suggests Russell hasn't yet realised the premium attacking opportunities that possession changes provide in international rugby.

Another case of muddled thinking was when he tried to kick downfield when surrounded by Welsh players. Inevitably, the kick was charged down, and in truth it was never on.

Scotland, via the scrummaging of Nel, Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson, the athleticism of the Gray brothers and the breakdown work of Hardie and John Barclay, have a solid and potentially imposing starting forward pack. If David Denton can rediscover his best form, they will also have a fine ball carrier from the back row.

But even if the Scotland pack is gaining the upper hand, Laidlaw and Russell, the key decision-makers at 9 and 10, are crucial for the rest of the Six Nations.

When they play well, Mark Bennett sees plenty of ball in the centre to get Scotland across the gainline, and Stuart Hogg, Scotland's finest individual talent, can pick strong running lines with defences worried about Laidlaw and Russell.

Laidlaw and Russell, then, are crucial for Scotland for the rest of the 2016 RBS Six Nations.