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Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland don’t need to do a Finn Russell on it

Ringrose and Stockdale can play chess out the back without throwing the game away

Finn Russell showed with his performance in the Heineken Cup final that he is a liability the very highest level of the game. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

I relate to Finn Russell. The Scotland outhalf has managed to combine the sublime with the ridiculous so far in his career.

Now 28, he is not going to change. His maverick skill set guided Racing 92 into the Champions Cup final. The “maverick” part of that sentence is why Jacky Lorenzetti’s club returned to Paris empty handed.

The British and Irish Lions cannot contemplate starting Russell at 10 against South Africa next summer. Not after Saturday’s mixture of sublime and ridiculous passing.

A European final magnifies the flaws in any individual or team. The Lions series is another level again. Russell might still play his way onto the plane as the third choice outhalf but even that would be an unnecessary risk by Warren Gatland.


At the very highest standard of rugby Russell is a liability. That’s harsh to say about such a gifted footballer but he literally threw the trophy into Exeter’s arms.

The number 10 – be it a European final or Lions Test series – must have two qualities: a steady hand on the tiller and the ability to pull off calculated risks under severe pressure.

The glaring lack of nous to play a percentage game when Racing had reeled in Exeter proved their undoing

The “calculated” part of that sentence is not in Russell’s game. Not when it really counts.

Think about Ronan O'Gara's performances in Heineken Cup finals. Remember how he was unable to guide Munster to glory in 2000 at Twickenham. Now, recall his kicking display against Biarritz in 2006 that proved the difference between winning and losing.

Russell, at 28, was unable to play with control in the moments that matter. I doubt Gatland will look past Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton and the starting Welsh outhalf. Maybe Russell will be ready come the 2025 tour of Australia but the glaring lack of nous to play a percentage game when Racing had reeled in Exeter proved their undoing.

You simply cannot win the big tournaments without a Farrell, Sexton, O’Gara, Jonny Wilkinson type figure at outhalf.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend and Russell have had their very public spats, but Russell should be learning so much from a 10 who won a Lions Test series in South Africa. The styles are so similar yet, sadly, their differences are all too apparent as well.

Caleb Clarke tore Australia apart and hurt a few of them for good measure on his debut. Photograph: Brett Phibbs/Inpho/Photosport

But I relate to Finn Russell. Watching him juggle the ball behind his goal line I was transported back to beautiful Fiji in the summer of 2003.

Sometimes I wonder what direction my career would have travelled if Eddie O’Sullivan’s chat with me on that tour had not been so blunt. I’ve told this story before. It was a cross roads in my rugby career when Eddie spelt out his issues with me: “Gordon, you can have 10 amazing moments in a match – two or three of them are jaw dropping – but you also do three crazy things that leave us behind our posts one too many times to pick you in the team. Cut out the mistakes or we cannot trust you in the back field.”

In a parallel universe the Ireland coach would still have been Gatland and maybe, just maybe, the focus would have been on encouraging the two or three runs that created points.

Young players rely on their confidence. Russell, presumably, has long since given up listening to a coach who he feels is trying to tie one hand behind his back. I understand this mentality but I sacrificed the magic tricks to win some medals.

I heard Caleb Clarke – the phenomenal 21 year old All Black winger – speaking about his Test debut against Australia: "The boys just told me to run and tackle."

For proof, watch him on the All Blacks player cam on YouTube. Clarke tore the Wallabies apart and hurt a few of them for good measure. The shots of his smiling father – Eroni Clarke did plenty of damage to the Irish midfield in 1992 – made for a heart warming story.

The sounds of a packed Eden Park reacting to Clarke was strange as it seems so far away from our current predicament. That said, we do have the Six Nations back on television this weekend. I'm lucky enough to be working pitch side for ITV.

An outhalf's primary duty is to control a game. Perhaps Finn Russell could have been a great alternative playmaker at 12.

Unfortunately, an outhalf cannot simply run and tackle. But a winger can. Back in 2003, I put my head down and tried to cut out the errors but all that internal focus on not making a mistake overwhelmed my natural feel for playing in the moment.

The perception of unreliability meant I didn’t make the World Cup squad. Eddie was right to a certain extent but I still believe it could have been dealt with in a different way. I know how I’d speak to that 23-year-old winger.

“Run and tackle.”

In professional sport you must constantly sharpen your primary skill while improving your weaknesses.

An outhalf’s primary duty is to control a game. Perhaps Finn Russell could have been a great alternative playmaker at 12. He would get away with making some of those instinctive plays, and allow an outhalf to make the sensible territorial gains.

Having spent the first half of this column exposing Russell’s flaws, his slick passing did create two tries for Simon Zebo and the way he plays, pushing the envelope, is a personality trait rugby must never lose.

That late decision by Racing to go for the corner with an extra man does not fall entirely on him. It’s a decision I will never understand. Kick the points, control the restart and there would have been huge pressure on Exeter. Miss and they still have possession in opposition territory.

Russell – to my eyes – makes most of his decisions at the very last second. In contrast, Sexton makes his decision early and then pretends he is about to do something else.

There is no reason why Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale cannot become Ireland’s secondary playmakers this winter. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Sexton would have dropped a goal on Saturday to win the cup. If he was wearing James O’Connor’s Wallaby 10 jersey two weeks ago he would have dropped into the pocket to beat New Zealand.

You love to see these renegade players surviving at the highest level into their thirties but surviving is not winning.

I’d take Russell or O’Connor in my team to reach a final but give me Joe Simmonds to ensure the medals go around the neck.

To excel on the highest stage of all a team needs two creative players out the back with the ability to play chess while everyone else plays rugby.

I could see Simmonds and Henry Slade – the perfect rugby player at the moment – planning three moves ahead of what was happening.

There is no reason why Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale cannot become Ireland’s secondary playmakers this winter.

Usually it is Conor Murray and Sexton thinking Ireland through a game. It worked beyond all expectations in 2018. Not so much in 2019.

Thankfully we have moved on with a desire to play “heads up” rugby. This is a mindset shift, a feeling of empowerment among the players to go for opportunities whenever they present themselves.

Sounds so obvious, but it needs to be put into practice. Ireland have the skill set but they will make mistakes. Lots of them. Italy will not punish them but France might take advantage of poor execution.

Sexton can throw those spectacular Russell balls but he won’t do it when Jack Nowell is standing in the passing lane waiting to intercept.

If Ross Byrne features I would expect his usual, reliable game with the emphasis moving onto Bundee Aki to distribute out of contact while those outside him have more scope to add to Ireland’s attacking game.

The coaching or more accurately the empowerment of our creative players needs to become more visible

I expect to see Mike Catt’s fingerprints all over the attack now he has been in the job for 12 months.

Stockdale at fullback would be my preference with Andrew Conway and Hugo Keenan on the wings, and Robbie Henshaw providing cover off the bench.

Let’s not compare Ireland to the All Blacks – it was fun while it lasted – but this squad still has the fundamental skills and smarts to move away from a territorial based game (when the opportunity presents itself). Ringrose can be as good a passer as Slade, and he has started putting those clever low kicks in behind the defensive line.

This is where the coaching or more accurately the empowerment of our creative players needs to become more visible.

I read Stockdale talking about an “information overload” in camp last week in order to allow them focus on game preparation this week. I like the sound of that. Most of all I like the sound of Irish players saying they can finish 2020 with two trophies.

Hopefully the information overload will lead to a flood of “heads up” opportunities at the Aviva on Saturday afternoon.

Push the skill set without doing a Russell on it. Somewhere in between Finn’s on the edge magic and the All Blacks rapid distribution in transition would do nicely.

The floor is yours Mr Catt.