Russell ready for French challenge and Ntamack head-to-head

It might be easy to get carried away if you are a Scotland supporter.

It might be easy to get carried away if you are a Scotland supporter.

Two wins to open the Guinness Six Nations for the first time since 1996. A history-busting try by Duhan van der Merwe. A rejuvenated Finn Russell, back in the mix with Scotland and leading by example, putting in a Player of the Match display as Scotland tore apart Wales. Could it be?

A mouth-watering tie with reigning champions France beckons. Win that, and Scotland give themselves a serious chance of going on to claim glory.

But while some might already be eyeing up a Round 4 meeting with Ireland, the Championship’s other unbeaten side so far, Russell knows that all focus must be on France, Grand Slam champions a year ago and unbeaten in the whole of 2022.

In a podcast with BBC Radio 5 Live, he said: “In terms of winning the title this year, it’s funny when you chat to someone from Scotland and they say: ‘the Ireland game is going to be massive.’ And I’m thinking ‘yeah but we’ve still got France!’

“France and Ireland will obviously be so much harder than both of those [England and Wales]. I don’t think we can look at the England and Wales games and think ‘we’re playing so well, that’s us if we keep going like this, we’re going to win it’ – we’re going to have to up it again for this France game.

“If we don’t beat France, then to beat Ireland at home is a must-win game to have a chance of winning. So we can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

The fly-half is in majestic form. A repaired relationship with Gregor Townsend has seen the Racing 92 star blossom, and after an assured performance against England, Russell practically ran the show against Wales, laying three tries on a plate for his teammates.

Turn the clock back just four months and Russell was not even named in Scotland’s squad for the Autumn Nations Series, before being recalled after an injury to Adam Hastings.

The turnaround is even more remarkable considering he is dealing with a new challenge: parenthood. Russell welcomed his daughter Charlie back into the world in November, but that added weight of responsibility seems only to have enhanced his maturity.

“For the last four weeks, I’ve been in and out of camp. I’ve been back home for one night, then seeing them for one day after the game. It’s not been tough [being in camp] because I get eight hours’ sleep so it’s good for me!” he added.

A key battle awaits Russell at the Stade de France on Saturday in the form of Romain Ntamack, his opposite number. The 23-year-old, who has already achieved so much domestically and internationally, is creating a legacy of his own after that forged by his father, storied winger Émile. One memorable moment was Romain’s first try for France against Scotland back in 2019, with the Frenchman embodying the youthful vigour of a rejuvenated side under Fabien Galthé.

Ntamack has been crucial in his own right for France, with his cross-kicks setting up tries for Thomas Ramos and Ethan Dumortier in the win over Italy in Rome.

Against Ireland though, he struggled to influence the match in a game where France admitted that they played too much rugby in their own half.

While Matthieu Jalibert has impressed off the bench in recent appearances for Les Bleus, there was never any question of Ntamack being dropped to take on Scotland.

And for attack coach Laurent Labit, the key is to ensure that his fly-half receives the necessary support around him, rather than expecting the No.10 to take on all the play-making responsibilities.

Labit said: “Romain has done what we have asked of him. We do not what him to be the only playmaker. He needs to be supported, helped. The other players around him need to give him information. Then he has to make the right decisions, of course, but for that, he needs communication around him so that he can distribute and get the team moving.

“Romain is someone who works very quickly in his analysis and understanding of the game. We need to play our premium players so that they can acquire the experience needed to take on the best in the world, for example Ireland and Johnny Sexton, who is 37. Our players need to build up their caps.”

With Russell having played in Paris since 2018, you would have expected he and Ntamack to have faced off more often in the No.10 jerseys.

In fact, they have started opposite one another just three times, with a win apiece at international level, while Russell’s Racing 92 got the better of Ntamack’s Toulouse in the Top 14 last season.

When it comes down to it though, it will not really be Russell against Ntamack, but more a question of whether the Scotland fly-half can break down Shaun Edwards’ defensive system.

Ireland managed to do so in Dublin, with the help of some good field position from the aforementioned French over-playing.

Against a Scotland team who have feasted on any scraps that have come their way in the first two rounds, you can be confident that Edwards and Galthié will be desperate to avoid gifting territory as they did at the Aviva Stadium.

Time will tell if this Scotland side can convert good form into something more permanent to leave an indelible mark on rugby history. If they do that, it will no doubt be because Russell has maintained his current rich vein of form and cracked the Edwards code.