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Scotland turn to mercurial playmaker for magic as Boks loom

SPOTLIGHT: Scotland need some magic from a reformed Finn Russell if Gregor Townsend’s men are to upset the odds just by making it out of a devilishly difficult World Cup pool.

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Despite heading to France ranked fifth in the world, Scotland find themselves as underdogs up against defending champions South Africa and an Ireland side that sit top of the world rankings.

Tonga and Romania make up Pool B and a lop-sided draw continues into the quarterfinals with the top two likely to face one of France or New Zealand in the last eight.

Just getting there is the immediate target for Townsend after falling at the pool stage four years ago to hosts Japan and Ireland.

“We’ll be outsiders but that gives us a nothing to lose mentality,” said the Scotland coach.

“We just need to focus on delivering our game and go after the opposition.”

A daring approach has been at the heart of Scotland’s renaissance over the past 12 months with Russell pulling the strings since being brought back into the fold.

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Less than a year ago the 30-year-old was initially left out for the Nations Series with Townsend citing the flyhalf’s form for Racing 92.

However, there was also history in a tense relationship between the pair.

Russell was dropped for the start of the 2020 Six Nations after breaching team discipline.

Townsend’s hand was forced in the end by injuries for last November’s internationals and a recalled Russell shone in a narrow defeat to New Zealand and a 52-29 thrashing of Argentina.

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England, Wales and France have also been put to the sword at Murrayfield in 2023 with Russell pulling the strings of a high-paced attack.

But he also claims to be a changed man off the field after the birth of his first child.

“If we’d had a big win I’d go wild. If we’d lost, I’d be picking up my spirits by having a laugh and forgetting about it. I used alcohol to deal with different scenarios, without really knowing it,” Russell told the Daily Mail earlier this year.

“[Fatherhood] gave me a reason to change. Not necessarily grow up, but take more responsibility. Some might not agree but I’m more responsible now.”

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‘Sweet spot’

The relationship between star player and coach has “never been better”, according to Russell.

Townsend’s actions suggest he agrees as Russell was made captain for the 25-21 World Cup warm-up win over France.

“He’s hitting that sweet spot where, after playing the game for 10 years in that one position and playing against some of the best teams around, he has an understanding of where space might open up,” said Townsend.

Russell’s coming-of-age as a leader is all the more important after former skipper Stuart Hogg’s shock retirement.

Hogg, who won 100 caps for his country and is Scotland’s all-time top try-scorer, quit in September, saying his body was “not able to do the things I wanted and needed it to do”.

Scotland’s free-flowing attack has earned plenty of admirers and some impressive scalps over the past 15 months.

But they will need to go to another level to end a long wait to beat either the Springboks or Six Nations champions Ireland.

South Africa have not lost to Scotland since 2010, while Townsend is yet to beat Ireland in eight attempts.

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