GREGOR Townsend has welcomed Finn Russell back into the Scotland squad after an eight-month absence, including the stand-off in a group of 40 for the six autumn Test matches. Richie Gray also returns, while the head coach has called up three uncapped players - Gray’s Glasgow team-mate Oli Kebble, Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe and Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele.

Russell has not been part of the national team since last year’s Rugby World Cup, having missed the Six Nations games earlier this year after leaving camp following what was described as a breach of team protocol. But both the Racing 92 playmaker and Townsend have insisted for some time that they were building bridges, and yesterday the head coach said that Russell would have gone on the summer tour to South Africa and New Zealand had it gone ahead. 

“Finn has been available since the end of the Six Nations,” Townsend said yesterday. “We had conversations towards the end of the Six Nations that have carried on all the way through the summer up until as recently as a few days ago. Unfortunately we weren't able to go on tour in the summer - I'm sure Finn would have been available for that tour. It's been great to see him play so well for his club since the restart.

“We want the best for him, we want the best for the Scotland team, and we see them both coming together over this period. We’re connecting much more, we’ve been in regular conversation, and I think given the time away from rugby for everyone, certainly through that period Finn has been really keen to come back and play for Scotland. That’s a real positive for everyone. He’s in great form, he’ll be coming into our camp after a European final, so we’re looking forward to working with him.”   

That Champions Cup final on Saturday will see Russell come up against an Exeter Chiefs side likely to feature three other members of the 40 - Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner and Jonny Gray - as well as Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who is just outside the squad according to Townsend. The Exeter trio also have an English Premiership final the weekend after, so will not be available for Scotland’s warm-up game against Georgia a week on Friday, while an assessment will be made on Russell after the European game.

Last capped in 2018, Jonny’s elder brother Richie opted not to take part in the World Cup. But since then he has returned to the Warriors from France, and Townsend is confident he can once again become an important player for his country.

“There were different circumstances just before the World Cup - his wife had just had a baby, it was the end of a long season in France and he had just come back from injury. It’s very different now that he’s based in Scotland. His body is in a much better place and we know, having watched him in training, that he’s moving well. He has a lot of experience, we want to see him in this environment again, and hopefully he’ll get an opportunity during this period to show what he can do.”    

Loosehead prop Kebble always seemed set to be called up as soon as he became eligible on residence grounds, as did Van der Merwe. Steele, meanwhile, has played himself into contention over the last couple of months.

 “Oli Kebble has started the season very well for Glasgow,” Townsend continued. “Duhan van der Merwe has added to the great form he has shown over the last couple of seasons for Edinburgh. And Scott Steele has really kicked on this summer, from not having a contract when lockdown started to getting an opportunity with Harlequins. He has got himself in great condition and has played really well and has started on a number of occasions for Harlequins.”

Glasgow and Edinburgh supply 14 players each to the squad, but the good news for both teams is that Townsend intends to release players back to them as much as possible for their PRO14 fixtures. “This is a squad of 40 players, we’ll have 23 for our games, so there’s going to be players going back to Edinburgh and Glasgow. We don’t have any of our players in England playing any rugby over the next few weeks, so it’s highly likely you’ll see players going back to play for Edinburgh and Glasgow.”

Prominent absentees from the squad include Glasgow pair Ryan Wilson and Pete Horne, while Edinburgh forward Magnus Bradbury is injured but would have been omitted anyway because of a lack of rugby since returning from a previous injury. Bradbury’s back-row team-mate Luke Crosbie is one of six men listed as unavailable because of injury, the others being Alex Craig of Gloucester, Rory Hutchinson of Northampton, Sale’s Byron McGuigan, Glasgow’s Kyle Steyn and Duncan Taylor of Saracens.