Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw says mercurial stand-off Finn Russell is the key to beginning the Six Nations campaign with a bang against Italy.
Head coach Gregor Townsend has once again put his faith in the France-based half-back duo for the Murrayfield encounter as the hosts look for just their third opening Championship win in 20 attempts.
Russell has excelled since joining Racing 92 in the summer from Glasgow Warriors and scrum-half Laidlaw, another Top 14 player with Clermont, believes the move has brought the best out of his partner. 'Finn is excited to get back to Murrayfield and play with the Scotland guys,' said the skipper.
Scotland's Finn Russell has excelled since joining Racing 92 in summer from Glasgow Warriors
'He is more of a leader than he used to be and he has matured since he went to France.
'He's been really sharp for them, causing other French teams problems, and Racing 92 qualified pretty convincingly in the end for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.
'Going to Racing 92 as a big signing has really helped his leadership qualities. Sometimes we are going to have to look to Finn in big Test matches to deliver and he's more than ready to do that.
'He will give the team direction and he understands his role as a key leader in the team.
'He's taken that responsibility on his shoulders and he's been really good this week in the build-up to the game.
'He has driven the team forward in training and given us real direction and purpose.'
Skipper Greig Laidlaw says Russell is key to beginning the Six Nations with a bang against Italy
Russell's new-found maturity also gives Laidlaw confidence that he will help nurse uncapped centre Sam Johnson through those crucial first 20 minutes of his international debut.
'Sam is going to fit in very easily with Finn because they certainly knew each other from playing for Glasgow. Finn's played a lot with our other centre, Huw Jones, as well,' said Laidlaw.
'Sam's taken everything in his stride this week. He