From the moment Finn Russell introduced himself to French rugby with two tries and a 20-point haul on his debut for Racing 92 last August, it was difficult not to think of him as a sports car now operating in a land of monster trucks.
His ability to leave rivals choking on exhaust fumes was bound to take the breath away. But there was always a risk that he might bump into one of the behemoths who dominate the landscape in the Top14.
That juncture arrived last Sunday for the fly-half, with the concussion he suffered in Racing’s game against Toulouse ruling him out of Scotland’s showdown with France on Saturday.
Finn Russell (right) is out of Scotland’s Six Nations match with France due to concussion
Gregor Townsend is astute enough to recognise that, sooner or later, this was always going to happen; his best-laid plans could be ambushed by the harsh realities of Russell’s new life in Paris.
But that doesn’t make it any more palatable. Not when the injury was sustained slap-bang in the middle of the Six Nations.
For all that Russell’s decision to swap a Glasgow postcode for one in the Parisian suburbs brought an expansion of his rugby education and an inflation of his bank balance, there would come a point when Scotland would be left counting the cost of his lucrative contract.
The injury is in the middle of the Six Nations campaign and is hugely frustrating for Scotland
It is something that Townsend has spent this week coming to terms with. Russell is no longer on the SRU’s payroll. It really is as simple as that.
Racing call the shots in terms of when he does and doesn’t play. Townsend is quick to acknowledge the fact that, previously, the French club had been fairly agreeable over how they used Russell.
There were times that the SRU had asked for their star playmaker to be rested and, as such, a middle ground had been struck. But Pat Lambie’s recent retirement meant that Racing simply had to play him last weekend. As far as they were concerned, that was the bottom line. End of story.
Townsend, who has handed the No 10 jersey to Peter Horne in Russell’s absence, was understandably frustrated on Thursday.
But, when push comes to shove, he accepts that there are times when Scotland will be powerless to prevent Russell’s paymasters from playing him as and when they see fit.
Townsend has spent this week coming to terms with Russell’s injury as it hampers his plans
With Greig Laidlaw also playing his club rugby in France and Stuart Hogg set to join English Premiership side Exeter Chiefs as of next season, Townsend criticised what he feels is ‘not a level playing field’ for his Scotland players in comparison to their Six Nations rivals.
Asked if he found the circumstances around Russell’s injury frustrating, Townsend replied: ‘You could certainly class it as that because he’s got injured between two Six Nations games.
‘He could have been injured, obviously, during the Six Nations – injuries are random. It is disappointing, though, that he played a Sunday before a Test match – and that was always one of the risks of him playing in France.
‘When they’ve signed a player, they’ve signed him for all the games outwith the international window that he’s available for and, ultimately, it’s their choice.
‘I’m just disappointed that the French Federation, or the Top14, had games on Sunday, which makes it very difficult to recover from any injury in a short time -and, if you have a head injury, it is almost impossible to play the following week.
‘I would certainly look at not playing on Sundays because, with the HIA process that is rightly in place, if anybody is suspected of having a head injury then they go through that process and that effectively rules them out six days later.
‘We are obviously able to rest Scottish-based players between rounds two and three of the Six Nations. England rest all of their players because they all play in England. Ireland rest all their players because they all play in Ireland.
‘Wales are probably in a similar situation to us because they have one or two players based in England, and Italy likewise – I believe Sergio Parisse has been ruled out because of a head injury, as well.
‘It is obviously not a level playing field going into such an important tournament, that our players do play between Six Nations games, but it is what it is – we can’t change it.
‘Yes (we asked Racing to rest him). We’ve had a really good relationship with them since Finn moved to France. He was rested before the Six Nations, he was rested before the November Tests, he has been rested for a couple of other games throughout the Six Nations.
‘They are aware that it’s in their best interests, and especially in Finn’s best interests, that he doesn’t play too many games.
Scotland asked Racing 92 to rest Russell but the request was denied and he picked up an injury
‘But they were in a position where they believed they had to select Finn because one of their other tens – Pat Lambie – retired with a head injury.
‘So, that’s what happened and he’s going to miss a game for us and potentially miss games for them, because of his injury.’
Townsend admitted that no official date has yet been set for Russell’s comeback, with the SRU keen to respect the various return-to-play protocols that are in place.
Horne’s inclusion at fly-half is one of four changes from the defeat to Ireland a fortnight ago, with fit-again Magnus Bradbury being rewarded with a place in the back row after a man-of-the-match display for Edinburgh last weekend.
Elsewhere, Blair Kinghorn replaces Hogg at full-back, while Nick Grigg gets the nod to partner his Glasgow Warriors team-mate Sam Johnson in midfield. With Adam Hastings out of form at the moment, Townsend clearly feels that Horne’s experience makes him a safer pair of hands.
‘Adam would have been in a better position for selection if he had played more rugby over the last month,’ said the head coach. ‘But Peter Horne has shown everyone that he can play very well at ten at international level.
Townsend admitted on Thursday that he does not have a return date currently for Russell
‘He’s probably our most organised and best prepared player in the squad.’
As Scotland chase a first win in Paris in 20 years, they go up against a French team who seem to be mired in crisis.
After their capitulation against Wales and their thrashing at Twickenham, though, Townsend is not of a mind to write them off – warning his players that France will come out all guns firing.
He is also wary of the threat posed by the youthful Toulouse half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, who have just 13 caps between them.
Townsend added: ‘The French mindset is one of reaction, they love reacting to difficult circumstances, to challenges. They will come out all guns blazing.’