It will take more than a stint as an unused Lion to get Finn Russell down. This feature first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Rugby World.
WITH THE sun shining on Beauly, a Highland hideout west of Inverness, Finn Russell surveys a day with nothing more strenuous than a trip to the beach planned. This Scottish fly-half’s life is one spent darting in and out of beautiful places, not ever really seeing too much of them. On a summer escape with the rest of the Russell family, a week before pre-season starts, here he can take his sweet time.
He had enjoyed a trip to Ibiza with some mates from home, as well as national and club team-mates Ali Price and Rory Hughes. However, it’s up in the green expanses of Scotland’s gorgeous North that the fly-half can really allow himself to kick back. You see, while many would have expected him to enjoy some similarly handsome terrain out in New Zealand in late June and early July, it was neither a totally easy-going affair for him, nor did he ever get to see too much of the country.
Back in June, after defeating Italy in Singapore, Scotland arrived in Sydney. Before the big game against the Wallabies, head coach Gregor Townsend informed Russell and loosehead Allan Dell that there were discussions about the pair joining up with the British & Irish Lions tour over the Tasman Sea. But nothing was finalised, so the pair should keep focusing on performing against Australia.
The Scotland bus leaving the Allianz Stadium after that memorable 24-19 win, in which Scotland led for huge swathes of the game, was noisy. There was a lot of singing at the front of the wagon, but eventually coach Townsend got on the mic and informed the entourage that there were two new Lions amongst them. The cheers went up. There was little time to get his life in a bag, as Russell prepared to leave for life with the Lions the very next day.
From his Highland haven, the Glasgow ten reflects on it all.
“Looking back now, you can’t say it was a waste of time,” he says, talking of his five solitary minutes of Lions action as a replacement against the Hurricanes while Dan Biggar received a Head Injury Assessment.
“Conditions could have been different – someone could have got an injury and you could be playing. It’s not all set up perfectly and that’s part and parcel of professional sport. But it was disappointing to get a call-up and then not get a game.
“Even to get on a tour is special. In four years’ time you might not be playing well, you might have an injury. No one would turn it down. Everyone wants to play and for a Scotland player it is the pinnacle of an international career.”
That last answer is in response to those rumours that a Scotland player had turned down the chance to travel to New Zealand – a notion anathema to the ambitious Scottish players, Russell suggests.
There was, and still is, a disconnect between many fans north of the border and the Lions brand. This discontent loudly evidenced itself in the aftermath of the initial tour squad announcement. The issue flared again when the mid-tour call-ups happened.
The players brought in from nearby – Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies, Tomas Francis and Cory Hill of Wales, plus Dell and Russell of Scotland – were quickly dubbed ‘The Geography Six’. While there was acknowledgment that Davies and Russell would have originally been considered for the tour by Warren Gatland and his coaches, it was mooted that the whole group of recruits devalued the jersey.
Considering afresh the unique challenges of being parachuted in, Russell says: “There were a few wee things for me and the other guys to deal with. We didn’t really know the coaches and it was Test week. We had to come in and try to fit in with the group.
“I did quite a bit of work with Greig Laidlaw, and I also spoke a bit with Tommy (Seymour). I had to try to pick up a new, full game plan in a few days. It was tough. I also tried to pick up little things while I was there, a lot of it was with the backs. There were a few wee things you would get from seeing how individuals work overall – nothing specific, but looking at how individuals work differently.”
Russell, clearly, loves the idea of the Lions tour. He fell foul of initial selection and saw next to no action, but he is confident about future tours. “I definitely think there will be more Scots in four years.
“If we keep progressing as we are doing now and there are no injuries, then yeah, I think so. There could have been more this time but Gatland picked what he saw as the best squad to take on New Zealand and he got a draw, so fair play.”
That was a chance to take a swipe that many Scotland fans would want Russell to take, but clearly life is too short and he is just too happy a character. You imagine that if Armageddon erupted and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stormed through Glasgow’s West End, Russell would ask them if they liked showjumping.
There is a popular gif of the stand-off performing the ‘running man’ dance on the touchline at Murrayfield, with Scotland 34-10 up against Argentina. During a Test match against one of the world’s best, Russell is mucking about.
It is that impish quality that makes him so popular with fans. He takes it into his play, too. He is a much braver defender than many realise, but it can be hard to credit anything other than his temerity in attack. Sometimes it fails to come off – one of his overcooked chips against England in this year’s Six Nations epitomises this very trait – but often enough he judges his dinks and line-probing runs just right. No matter the stage or who is in front of him.
“I just enjoy it,” he says of his lack of Test nerves. “The bigger the occasion, the more fun I have. No matter who it is, it is just another game of rugby. You just go out and play. In Tests you’ve got to be sharper but in games things just happen.”
Some players talk about conditioning, others assume instinct. Russell cannot pretend the whole game goes in slow motion, but sometimes he just gives something a go. So while many chip kicks are pre-planned, it is the moments of pure attack he loves. Against Australia there was one sticky memory, a pass to John Barclay when he spotted the flanker’s run and gave himself up to the moment. Who cares if the pass was forward? He relishes hitting the line, drawing flak and risking late hits so he releases big ball-carriers.
He describes the past season as “good fun”. Ask him about his ambitions for next season and it’s more of the same stuff. “I just want to play the best rugby I can. If I don’t play well in a game I can get a bit down for a few days and that can knock on to everything else. I just want Glasgow to keep progressing and to enjoy it.
“Rugby is just a small part of your life but it takes up the majority of your time. So I want to have fun. I don’t have too many hobbies, so I want to play the best I can. As long as I’ve got a smile on my face…”
He tails off but the implication is there. As long as he is smiling, everything is alright with the rugby world. And he is likely to be smiling broadly if Scotland can build on their last Six Nations and Glasgow can improve on their first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final and get back in the play-offs in the league competition.
Mind you, if you believed some, Russell almost didn’t hang around to see. Rumours had it that the fly-half would be skipping out to join former Scotland boss Vern Cotter at Montpellier. He shuts this down, though, saying: “I don’t know where that came from. We will have to wait and see about the Top 14, because I’ve still got a year left at Glasgow and we have to wait and see what it’s like with Dave Rennie.”
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It is an exciting time for Scottish rugby with three big personalities now in charge of the flagship sides: Townsend with the Scottish national team, Richard Cockerill in charge of Edinburgh and, as soon as Super Rugby concludes, Chiefs boss Rennie with the Warriors. So as a high-profile boss comes in to a settled team, will there be a drop into the unknown?
“Me and Tommy Seymour went to see him (Rennie) when we were out in New Zealand. I think he will change up what we do, day to day. Gregor was great for five years but I think it will refresh the boys almost, to have him in. We’ve done so well but Rennie will give us a different routine.
“He’s made a few signings too. We also caught up with a couple of them, Callum Gibbins at the Hurricanes and Lelia Masaga at the Chiefs. We should get a different view on rugby with their Super Rugby (backgrounds). Rennie should be similar to Gregor, with some different traits. I’m certain there will be high offloading and playing with speed. Nothing major, just little things.”
For Scotland’s most creative attacker, success in any sporting sphere is dictated by whether or not you or your team can adapt. He will certainly have to. Whatever the terrain, whoever is in charge, his kin will look to him for a bit of creativity and a lot of action. Forget picturesque Beauly, it’s almost time to pack the bags and head back out on the road again.
It should be another tough season of rugby for Russell, but nothing worth loving was ever easy. Then again, just because things don’t always go your way, it doesn’t mean you should ever stop smiling, either. Just look at his wee face.
This feature first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Rugby World.