Champions Cup final: Hogg & Russell face off in European final to savour

Finn Russell stats
Finn Russell has posted impressive statistics for Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup
Venue: Ashton Gate, Bristol Date: Saturday, 17 October Kick-off: 16:45 BST
Coverage: Live radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sounds, and BBC Sport website & app

Diplomacy demands that Gregor Townsend won’t say who he’s rooting for in the European Cup final on Saturday, but you can easily picture the Scotland coach with his feet up in front of the telly, safe in the knowledge that no matter what happens when Stuart Hogg’s Exeter meets Finn Russell’s Racing he’ll still be laughing.

Throw Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne into the match-day mix as well and you have the most Scots in the final since Northampton beat Munster at Twickenham 20 years ago.

Factor in that Hogg and Russell are also on the shortlist for European player of the year and its a heady time for Townsend as he prepares for six Test matches before the end of the year.

The way Townsend sees it, he’s either going to have “Hoggy, Jonny and Sam taking the mickey out of Finn when they meet up with the national squad or you’re going to have Finn taking the mickey out of Hoggy, Jonny and Sam.

“It’s great to have so many involved. We did a zoom call recently for all the senior players and there were 108 players on that call. We’re developing real quality and depth.

“I said to them that 12 months ago Scott Cummings hadn’t played a game for Scotland and he’s played every game since, I said that at the start of the year Rory Sutherland had only played a few minutes for Edinburgh and he started every game in the Six Nations. Things happen quickly. I wish all the lads well.”

Scots at heart of final to savour

This is a European final to savour between two sensational teams with Scots at the heart of them. If you want to throw another kilt on it, Rob Hunter, the Chiefs’ forwards coach, is a former Scotland A player and, stretching it further, Townsend’s own brother, Craig, has a link, too.

He played for Exeter alongside the now head coach Rob Baxter when the club was in the Championship, then became the club strength and conditioning coach. The alliance continues today. Through his work with the Rugby Players Association, Townsend senior looks after the Exeter players.

Junior won’t say who he wants to win or who he thinks will win, but he talks freely about the Scottish boys involved. “If you look at Hoggy, over the last few years he’s become a real provider on the field,” he says.

“He’s known for his pace and his breaks but nowadays he gets more excitement about putting somebody else away or putting a kick though for somebody else to score than he does about scoring himself. He’s selfless, a real team player and that’s part of what makes Exeter so strong.”

Stuart Hogg statistics
Stuart Hogg’s attacking numbers in 20 games as an Exeter Chief

Townsend remembers sitting down with Hogg in the cafe at Scotstoun when the full-back was weighing-up his move away from Glasgow. As well as the approach from Exeter he had a couple of offers from France. Was Townsend happy that he opted for the Chiefs?

“Absolutely. We didn’t want to lose him, but it was an excellent place for him to go. A great club and a welcoming environment, a brilliant fit for him. They’re an amazing story, the Chiefs.”

‘Finn is better than I was’

They’re not the only one. Russell versus Townsend was a spring drama that hardly needs another airing, not now that their relationship is in a decent place again. Russell will play for Scotland this autumn and he’ll do so as one of the most feared 10s on the planet.

The on-field similarities between Russell and Townsend is a subject that many have had a crack at analysing. “As players, he’s better than I was, so we can move on from that very quickly,” laughs the coach. “In terms of mindset, I see comparisons. We both like the challenges of what a defence brings and maybe our first thought was how do you beat them with ball in hand.

“It took me a long time to work out that there are other ways of beating a defence, other ways that will help the team more, but once I’d worked that out maybe my physical ability had reduced and I wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do.

“Finn has worked it out much earlier. He still wants to move the ball and find holes, but he’s really matured as a player over the last few years. He can break down defences with his kicking game as much as his passing.

“The way his rugby brain works, he sees things really quickly. He still has the mindset of wanting to take on defences. He has that fearlessness to go for gaps, but he has the skill to unlock the best defence in different ways.

“The match-winning moment against Saracens in the semi-final (the deft chip over a flat defence, the chase and gather and offload for the score that won the game late on), that’s a skill that’s hard to coach. The execution of the kick in a big moment. It’s exceptional.

“Finn was very brave in that game not just in going for that play. He had a couple of injury knocks during the week in training and still he played 80 minutes against a very, very physical defence.”

‘More people know what Jonny can do’

Away from the glamour of Racing’s illustrious 10 and Exeter’s star 15 is Gray. It’s been somewhat amusing to hear some observers of the English Premiership eulogising the lock as if he’s doing anything different for the Chiefs than he was doing for Glasgow and Scotland, but some seem to be have taken a little by surprise by how good he is.

“He was great before,” says Townsend. “Maybe just more people are now aware of what he can do.” Gray has settled well at Exeter. It’s the perfect club for his style of play and this final – a monumental battle up front – will suit him down to the ground.

Jonny Gray in action for Exeter Chiefs
Jonny Gray is another Scot to make a dynamic start to his Exeter Chiefs career

“Sam (Skinner, who’s on the bench) has really looked after Jonny and has helped him settle. Considering they’re both vying for a place in the Exeter second-row (Skinner can also play six and seven) then you see what kind of guy Sam is. An intelligent player and a really lovely person. He’ll play his part in the final, no doubt about it.”

Hidalgo-Clyne is the fifth Scot. The scrum-half is in fine form, principally when coming off the bench for the Chiefs. He’s had a nomadic existence since leaving Edinburgh in 2018, doing stints at the Scarlets, Harlequins, Racing and Lyon before finding stability at Exeter.

Townsend hasn’t named him in his training squad for the upcoming games, but he’s going to review things after the Tests with Georgia and Wales.

The international stuff is closing in fast, but for the five of them only one thing matters now – Ashton Gate, Bristol on Saturday evening. Since the competition began 25 years ago only a dozen Scots have won it. That number will rise on Saturday, by one or four, but rise it will.

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