Allan Massie: Finn Russell affair is a small storm in a very small teacup

The Finn Russell business is disappointing, but, one hopes, not too disruptive. If what is reported is correct, he has behaved unprofessionally. Such things happen in every walk of life. There are many who have phoned in sick after a night on the town. Cabinet ministers have been known to be what Private Eye calls “tired and emotional”. Finn’s very talented team-mate at Racing22 , Teddy Thomas, stepped over the same line after the Scotland-France match two years ago and was consigned to outer darkness by Jacques Brunel, then the French coach.
Finn Russell is our most talented player but his absence is not all loss. Picture: SNS.Finn Russell is our most talented player but his absence is not all loss. Picture: SNS.
Finn Russell is our most talented player but his absence is not all loss. Picture: SNS.

Finn hasn’t been sent to Coventry. He was invited to remain with the squad after being told he wouldn’t be selected for the Ireland match. Not accepting that invitation may have been sensible. His presence at training sessions might have been more a distraction than of use.

We’ll miss him in Dublin. Of course we will. He is our most talented player and has been in excellent form in both the Top14 and the European Champions Cup. But Adam Hastings has been playing very well for Glasgow, notably against Exeter who offer a severe test of nerve as well as ability. Moreover he has been kicking goals and missing very few, whereas Finn hasn’t been Racing’s goal-kicker this season.

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So it’s not all loss. Hastings will naturally see it as an opportunity and may – who knows? – play well enough to consign Finn to the replacements’ bench when he returns, as one hopes he soon does, to the squad.

Compared to what has been happening in England with the fall-out from the Saracens scandal, this is a small storm in a very small teacup. Yet misfortune may be stimulating as Saracens showed when coming from behind, and down to 14 men, to beat Racing last Sunday. Their second-half rugby wasn’t adventurous or exhilarating, but it was mighty effective as they imposed their will on their opponents.One couldn’t but admire them and agree that they deserved their victory even though it deprived Glasgow of the last place in the quarter-finals.

Eddie Jones, stirring things up in his usual style, has been asking how the Six Nations will be refereed. I don’t suppose he expects much of an answer. One could, of course, answer it in one word and that word would be “inconsistently”. This won’t be the fault of the referees, each of whom will be trying to apply the Laws of the Game while at the same time not ruining it as a spectacle. The truth is that rugby has become so complicated with the margins between what is lawful and what is unlawful so fine that consistency in refereeing is all but impossible.

However, there is one law too often ignored. This is Law 9.20b , Law 9 being concerned with Foul Play. 9.20b reads: “A player must not charge into a ruck or maul. Charging includes any contact made without binding to another player in the ruck or maul”.

Laws 15 and 16, which deal with the ruck and the maul, both insist on the requirement to bind on to another player, the ruck law(15.7) saying: “A player must bind on to a team-mate or opposition player. The bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body”, while the ruck law states (16.7b) “a player joining a maul must bind on to the hindmost player in the maul.”

The intention of these laws is clear. They are sensible because, if observed, they bring some order to both ruck and wall, and seek to avoid dangerous play. But of course they are not observed. Players join ruck or maul without binding .They come from the side, not from the back, and they make contact, often violent contact, with an opponent . Moreover the practice of heaving an opponent out of a ruck is also evidently unlawful, since this requires the player either to charge his opponent or to use two arms to pull or throw him away, and, if he is doing either of these things he cannot be bound to another player, since binding requires the use of an arm.

Yet these laws are rarely enforced. The game would be better and safer if they were.

Like many, I’ve abandoned hope of seeing the law about the put-in to the scrum being enforced and recognise that it is understandable if referees are happy to get the scrum over any old how. But it irritates me that no attention is given to the purpose of the set scrum. Sixteen players are confined to a small area of the field, so that there is space for the seven of the team that wins the ball to play in. But the ball seldom goes straight to the backs. Instead the No 8 picks it up and charges ahead to set up a ruck, by which time the space has been filled. Daft.