Those who have seen Finn Russell play get the picture as to exactly why Scotland rely on him. Flair, talent, the unexpected and the occasional risk, Russell is one of the most exciting players in town and his influence has only grown with Scotland.
Recently Gregor Townsend told his outhalf he was coming into the best phase of his career. Russell turned 31 just weeks ago. He has, said the Scotland coach, a younger man’s body and an older man’s head.
Townsend is backing Russell to bring to Scotland the kind of influence Johnny Sexton gives Ireland in their Rugby World Cup clash next weekend. Although the two players were on a Lions tour together in 2017, they were on different teams and did not often cross paths. Russell knows Sexton only as a player and little of him off pitch.
But he understands Ireland and says Scotland won’t try to take the Irish captain out of the match like so many teams have tried in the past. History also tells him there will be moments in the game that will flare up and he cares to name who could be involved in the flashpoints.
“There might be some mouthing off here and there, some words exchanged maybe, but can’t expect anything else,” says Russell at the Scotland team base in Nice. “That’s just the way it is in these sorts of games. You’re going to do anything you can to try and get one up on your opposite man or the opposite team.
“A lot depends on the game and how it’s going. If we’ve got the momentum and there might be someone like Peter O’Mahony trying to start something, handbags or something like that or me chipping over the top try to change the picture, I think it’s kind of inevitable something is going to happen. Whoever manages it the best will probably come out the other end.”
But, says the Scottish playmaker, trying to take Sexton out of the game would be a distraction, counterproductive to the way Scotland want to play and better serve Ireland’s cause.
“I wouldn’t see the need to go over the top and put him off his stride or take him out,” says Russell. “We’re obviously aware of what he can do and how he can control the game. On the defensive side if we go out to shut him down it would probably create space elsewhere, which is what they want.”
“I’ll play my own game,” he adds. “Everyone is going to have that. At 10, nine or 15 there is always going to be that individual battle to win. I tend not to get caught up in that. Times in a game it may arise, but I imagine it will be me sticking to my job and doing what’s best for the team, controlling the game. I imagine Johnny will be doing the same. They’ll have a structure or a set piece they are going to have moves off, which allows him get his hands on the ball.”
There is a regard for Sexton, who at 38 defies the arc of most rugby careers. Russell is aware of the seven-year difference but is not surprised at Sexton maintaining his iron grip on the Irish team and shaping how it plays.
Scotland and other teams are wary of Irish outhalf and that extends far beyond what he does on the pitch during the match. His influence reaches deep into the performances of other players on the Irish team.
“I’ve never played with him,” says Russell of Sexton. “Run against him a few times at Glasgow or international stuff. He’s such an influential player. I’ve heard it from the boys, he’s like a coach on the field, so I think he obviously knows the structure, the shape, the players inside out because of the influence he has on the training pitch but also outside with the coaches.
“I’m not surprised. He’s had a great career and how well he’s still playing so I’m not surprised by that. He suits how Ireland play and he’s a major player for them to progress in this World Cup.”