Finn Russell making Scotland a dangerous proposition
Outhalf showed against England he has the ability to change a game in an instant
Finn Russell: backed himself in the crucial moments which helped fashion a famous victory over England at Murrayfield. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho
Murrayfield – Scotland 10, England 6 – 30 minutes and 25 seconds are on the clock. Time for some genius.
Stuart Hogg’s quick tap on the Scottish 22 hasn’t yielded much of a dividend, and after a Sean Maitland carry, Peter Horne is obliged to tidy up his winger’s loose offload before being tackled behind the gain line, and the Scots regroup 30 metres from their own goal-line.
The ball is slow, so there seems to be nothing on, and 99 times out of a hundred the team in Scotland’s position either truck it up for another recycle or one of their half-backs puts boot to ball with a box kick to chase or kick longer downfield. Scotland do neither.
Instead, Finn Russell backpedals into the pocket with an alternate plan in mind. Jonny Gray takes Greig Laidlaw’s pass, pivots, and slips the ball out the back to Russell. He has Hogg, number eight Ryan Wilson, outside centre Huw Jones and right-wing Tommy Seymour outside him. They are faced by Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Jonny May.
Russell immediately floats a left-to-right pass across his 22 seemingly into empty space. Initially it looks like it’s going straight to Joseph, who has shot out of the line. There’s an audible gasp from the crowd, which starts out as more of a groan before morphing into a cheer. ‘Ohhhhh…whoaaaa!’ It’s the kind of pass that is against the manual. It looks incredibly high-risk. It’s audacious and outrageous.
And it’s the pass of the tournament.
The ball loops high over Joseph’s outstretched arms, who now realises he’s marooned and out of the game, and into the path of Jones, who doesn’t have to break stride in racing upfield inside May. He’s eventually tackled by May in the English 22, after veering around Mike Brown on the outside.
From the recycle, Johnny Barclay spins in the tackle to keep the ball off the ground with an offload to Laidlaw. After Stuart McInally beats Farrell, of all people, from the next recycle, Russell wristily spins a right-to-left pass over Anthony Watson for Sean Maitland to gather and score in the corner. So often that kind of pass could beat its intended target and float over the touchline, but Russell seems to pull the ball down with backspin.
But that first pass is the one which made the three-ruck, 80-metre try possible. The high reverse camera angle is even better. It just catches the ball leaving Russell’s left hand and follows its flat trajectory to its initially imaginary target, where Jones steams onto the ball.
Coming after two opening performances in which Russell’s game had been roundly criticised, it was a testimony to both the outhalf’s character and the backing and coaching skills of Gregor Townsend, his mentor, Scottish coach and kindred spirit former outhalf all rolled into one.
“I think it was the pass of the season so far,” enthuses Craig Chalmers, a former Scottish outhalf who played for his country 60 times.
“Finn’s passing had been a bit inaccurate in the opening two games, even his small passes, which he’s normally really good at. He takes the ball to the line really well, releases players off him really well. He had a couple of bad games but everybody has them.
“Maybe it was because there’s been a lot going on with the Racing contract,” adds Chalmers in reference to Russell’s impending move to the Parisian club at the end of the season.
“But after the first two games when he’s not played particularly well, although he had done some good things in them, to go out and play with such confidence against a team that had only lost once in 25 games, and to throw the passes that he did, says everything about his character as well as his ability.
“The one to Jones across his own 22 was off his left hand as well, and he is right-handed. It was millimetre perfect, and then he ended it off with a little ball over the top to Maitland. Two different kinds of passes, but two beautifully timed and placed passes, for probably one of the tries, if not the try, of the tournament so far.”
“It was an extraordinary pass, and it showed the balls and the character he has got to be able to do that because a lot of players would have gone into their shells and been conservative, and not thrown that pass. He said ‘stuff ‘it’ and I think he would have had a word from Gregor.
“Gregor was a bit like that himself; try it at one end and try it at the other end,” says Chalmers, a long-time contemporary, rival and team-mate, when Townsend was usually shifted to inside centre or even full-back.
“I think Gregor would have said to Finn ‘go and play your game. Just show what you can do’. And he gave Finn, and all the players, the confidence to go and do that. You can’t go out and suffocate a player of Finn’s talent. You’ve got to let him play his own game, and that’s the way he plays.”
If anyone should know what makes Russell tick, it’s Townsend, who was something of a maverick himself. Early on in his career, at Parc des Princes in 1995, Townsend played at ‘13’ outside Chalmers and made a stupendous offload for Gavin Hastings to steam onto the ball for the match-winning try.
Townsend played 82 times for Scotland, but of those 51 were in his specialist position of outhalf, with 26 at centre and seven off the bench. It was as if coaches didn’t trust him fully and Scotland won only 32 of those games.
As such it’s been something of a surprise to see him become such a high-achieving coach, yet he has and, what’s more, his teams are a reflection of the ambitious way he played. He seems like a genuinely good bloke too, thoughtful, respectful, straight and articulate in his public utterances, and devoid of ego.
“Gregor had a lot of natural talent,” says Chalmers. “You couldn’t stifle his natural talent. If he saw something was on he would just play it, no matter what coaches said. He would just play it. And I think he’s brought that into his coaching. He’s got a good philosophy on the game. He wants to play exciting rugby, but he knows there’s times when you’ve got to kick, and got to this or that.
“A lot of people didn’t think he’d go into coaching but he’s done a great job. He had a rough start when he got involved with Scotland under Andy Robinson, and it didn’t go great. But he got a chance to learn from his mistakes. To win the Pro12 with Glasgow was a great achievement, and to get all players playing on the same wavelength is good coaching. It’s hard to do,” says Chalmers, who himself coached the Scottish Under-20s just under a decade ago.
It was Townsend who first plucked Russell from Scottish Division Two club rugby with Falkirk in the summer of 2012 after he had also impressed for the Scottish U-20s in that year’s IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa. Russell was also a stonemason for three years after leaving secondary school, and says he reminds himself of those days if he’s having a bad at training.
“He watched Finn play at Murrayfield one day and saw something in him. He didn’t get a game for the Stirling County team and he went to play for Falkirk, so he was playing second division rugby, and he saw something in Finn. He may have made his way anyway, but I think it’s a case of right place, right time, playing the right game. Finn did some things on that day, and Gregor has a good eye. He knows a good player when he sees one, and he took Finn under his wing and brought him along beautifully.”
Russell was given his debut for Glasgow during the 2012 Six Nations, progressed further in the 2012-13 season and was a key component in their march to the Pro12 title in the 2014-15 season.
It was his magnificent left-to-right skip pass to put D.T.H. van der Merwe over in the corner, and he added the touchline conversion, which helped Glasgow beat Ulster in the semi-final. He scored a try and landed four conversions in the 31-13 final win over Munster too.
It’s doubtful if Townsend will be too critical of Russell for upping sticks and moving to Racing. Russell is 25 and, aside from his financial considerations, Townsend’s own playing career took him to Australia, England, France (where he played for Brive, Castres and Montpellier) as well as South Africa.
There’s no doubt Townsend benefitted from the solid foundations laid by his predecessor Vern Cotter who, of course, himself benefitted from the work Townsend did in Glasgow.
Cotter is, of course, a food friend of Joe Schmidt’s through their six years coaching together at Bay of Plenty and Clermont Auvergne but, for all that, the Irish head coach is quick to acknowledge Townsend’s work at Glasgow. When Townsend took over as Glasgow head coach, Leinster had just won back-to-back European Cups under Schmidt and from the outset Townsend wasn’t shy about citing Schmidt and Leinster as a template.
“Maybe we’ve had a couple of close escapes which will hopefully stand to us.
Schmidt can see Townsend’s imprint on this Scottish team.
“I see a bit of the Glasgow from Gregor. I remember having a really good chat with Gregor when he took over at Glasgow, and we had a really good chat about things. He made a difference there, and they won the Pro14.
“Vern did an unbelievably good job in Scotland and I think the solidity he brought is now kind of starting to blossom into an all-round game that’s very hard to quell, to suppress the way that they play, and the enthusiasm and tempo they play at, with the skill level they bring.
“And it looks to me like they all get so excited about what they are doing. That’s what Glasgow used to look like and that’s what Scotland look like, and when we played them last year there was that same excitement being involved but there was probably a little bit more of ‘we’re prepared to roll our sleeves up’ as well.
“It’s exciting for Scottish rugby and Irish rugby and our supporters because they got excited on Saturday and we want to bring the same excitement Saturday week. It was a fantastic atmosphere at the finish of the game. We were pretty quiet just before the finish, certainly pretty quiet in the coaches’ box.
“Maybe we’ve had a couple of close escapes which will hopefully stand to us. Hopefully, we don’t have to scramble a win but if I’m sitting here in two weeks’ time and we’ve scrambled a win, I’ll take a scramble. I’ll take anything we can get because I think they’re a very good side.”