Finn Russell will be Scotland’s key man in Murrayfield

Gregor Townsend is right to gamble on his instinctive playmaker in Ireland clash

 Scotland’s Finn Russell in action during the Guinness Six Nations Championship match between Scotland and Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Scotland’s Finn Russell in action during the Guinness Six Nations Championship match between Scotland and Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

Finn Russell. His very name immediately polarises opinion. Many see him as too unpredictable, too unreliable. Others adore his dashing style of outhalf play or, at any rate, like Ronan O’Gara, appreciate that if Scotland are to outsmart bigger, more physical opponents, then Gregor Townsend is right to gamble on his instinctive playmaker.  

The former Irish outhalf has particular interest in the current Scottish outhalf, as Russell also succeeded none other than Dan Carter at Racing, where O’Gara coached.

“Townsend is a sharp operator,” says O’Gara. “They play with a lot of width, with [Stuart] Hogg in the wide channels and, as someone who follows French rugby, Finn Russell is a throwback to years gone by. He plays off the cuff and instinctively, and you have to admire the way he plays the game. It mightn’t stack up at certain times at Test level but, as a footballer, he’s highly, highly talented.

“It’s great in this day and age that he has that. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts his game for Scotland, but when he plays for Racing he is good.”

Russell was first picked up for Glasgow by Townsend in the summer of 2012, after impressing for Falkirk and the Scotland U-20s in the 2012 IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa.

With Glasgow’s front-liners away on international duty for the 2013 Six Nations Championship, Townsend offered him a contract for the 2014-15 season, when he was also a key figure in the Warriors’ breakthrough Pro12 title success.

Stonemason

Russell had previously been an apprentice stonemason and, in an interview before his debut Six Nations campaign in 2015, he said: “On rainy days it could be pretty miserable. It was for a company in Thornhill near Stirling and I worked out of a wee shed. It could be tough but I enjoyed it. I’d be making windowsills, door frames, fireplaces – even building walls. But, compared to playing rugby, it’s night and day. If I ever have a bad day at training, I think back to what it was like working in that cold shed.”

Townsend diplomatically maintains that he’d prefer to have Russell, the Clermont-based Greig Laidlaw and others based in Scotland where they have more control over their players, akin to the Irish system, but – also citing the example of Sexton at Racing – points out that Russell was rested by Racing the week before the Six Nations. And, as someone who played with Castres, Northampton and others, Townsend knows his Racing sojourn will make Russell a better player as well as sparking something of a bromance and on-field telepathic understanding with kindred spirit Simon Zebo.

For Zebo at Racing, read Hogg with Scotland. So it is that Russell looks like a key figure, maybe the key figure, at Murrayfield next Saturday.

In the 47th minute in the same venue against Italy last Saturday, after making inroads into the Italian defence, Greig Laidlaw looks right off a ruck close to the posts. No Russell. He looks left, sees Russell, feeds him and the outhalf dinks a wicked grubber into the ground and the sizeable Murrayfield in-goal area for Stuart Hogg to win a slightly dubious touchdown.

Powder dry

One had the distinct impression that Scotland kept their powder dry last Saturday, but nearly everything went through Russell.

Off turnover ball outside the Italian 22 in the 11th minute, he looked across the pitch, saw how narrow the Italian defence was, and how Blair Kinghorn had kept his width. Russell’s crosskick into the space in front of Kinghorn was perfect, in distance and weight. The winger didn’t even have to break stride in scoring the first of his hat-trick untouched. On a silver salver, with ribbons on top.

Gordon D’Arcy is a detractor, albeit in the context of praising Johnny Sexton

In addition to two try-scoring assists with kick passes, Russell worked a loop and linked with kindred spirit Hogg for another try by Kinghorn and then spotted a shooter to delay his pass for a try by Chris Harris.

Four of five tries created by Russell. But plenty are sceptical, a case in point being Russell’s performance in Racing’s defeat to Ulster in the Kingspan Stadium, where he was creator in chief of two of the Parisians’ four tries, but missed three conversions out of three.

 Gordon D’Arcy is a detractor, albeit in the context of praising Johnny Sexton, which is understandable and, in the build-up to last year’s game at the Aviva Stadium, was borne out.

“Finn Russell does not look after his pack the way Johnny Sexton can,” said D’Arcy in these pages. “Sexton is the mathematician at a blackjack table. Probability promises scoring opportunities if he sticks to the process.  

“Russell is the other type of high-roller. The Scottish outhalf is willing to bet it all from anywhere on the pitch (but mainly off turnover ball), his instinct is to splinter the opposing defence with a spectacular pass.”

Famous pass

D’Arcy even contended that Russell’s famous pass, like a Roger Federer lob, for Huw Jones to run onto for that wondrous pitch-length try against England last year should have been cut out.

The Italians were rushing up and he just picked them off really

The former French outhalf Thomas Castaignède is on record as saying that the one player he loves watching more than anyone else is Russell.

Of Russell’s performance in Murrayfield against Italy, another former Test outhalf, Jonathan Davies, said: “I thought he was brilliant. He had an armchair ride. He controlled the game.”

“The Italians were rushing up and he just picked them off really. The mistakes that the Italians did, from knock-ons and turnovers, put them under pressure and he showed great composure and brought everyone else into the game. They’ve got to keep him fit and healthy, because he’s the one that makes them tick.”

Whatever the outcome next Saturday in Murrayfield, Russell is sure to be a key man. And whatever else, both the game and the 2019 Guinness Six Nations would assuredly be duller without him.  

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