Six Nations: Any coach with a beating heart has to play Finn Russell
Return of Scottish outhalf greeted with giddy expectation, but his uniqueness can be fatal
If Finn Russell could be boxed as a player it is his sleight of hand, his dexterity, his potential to be one of the most creative and exhilarating players in world rugby. File photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho
On social media there is a clip of Finn Russell juggling a tennis racket and two tennis balls. The first impression is how apt it appears: a rugby player entertaining himself at home and posting it on his Twitter feed. It is as much about the juggling as the man.
If Russell could be boxed as a player it is his sleight of hand, his dexterity, his potential to be one of the most creative and exhilarating players in world rugby. But with that, with him, there is always the possibility that the balls and tennis racket will come crashing down.
Russell’s talent has also been his Achilles’ heel, his creative mind a weakness and his wilfulness to colour outside the lines self-destructive. Often on the pitch and especially at outhalf against modern defensive lines, such as England this weekend, which can block out sunlight, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend will want a juggler. But Russell’s challenge is balance: how to be a more prosaic version of himself.
Maybe those two things are mutually exclusive to the only player in Townsend’s 35-man Scottish squad that plays his rugby in France with Racing 92. After All Black Dan Carter left, it was Russell the Parisian club chose as a replacement.
It was about a year ago that Russell’s relationship with Townsend appeared to have hit rock bottom following a Sunday evening drinking session in the team hotel bar. Exploding that protocol cost him the 2020 Six Nations.
But for Russell it wasn’t an issue about too much drink or protocols or what the players should be seen to be doing or what they were instructed to do by management. It was more fundamental.
“Eight years I’ve had him as a coach and I don’t really know him at all,” Russell says of Townsend. “We’ve not got a personal relationship. This whole situation with Scotland has been made out to be about me wanting to have a drink, when in actual fact, it’s about control.”
It is unprecedented candour from a player about a national coach who controls selection. But Russell the rebel is a snug fit and his willingness to fight against control has also been his downfall on the pitch in the past.
England this weekend will know that. They will put him in shadow and squeeze him into throwing the long-skip pass or kick over with the outside of his boot or a reverse pass behind his back. They will, inch by inch, press him into believing one conjured piece of mastery in a tight position can dig Scotland out of a hole.
Aside from Scotland winning their first match of the championship, having a strong game against England – more than any in the Six Nations – may also get Russell a second glance from Lions’ coach Warren Gatland. The upswing is, and the outhalf will know, the playmaker is always attack-minded and not risk averse. There is currency in that mindset for Scotland. If they can’t look to players such as the 28 year old to unlock England, who is it Townsend can turn to?
It is also an important game for Russell because it is his first international for a long time. He played less than an hour at Test level over the last 12 months following his protocol problems, Scotland exile and injury at the end of October.
Last year, in a conversation with Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy in their video series, Baz and Andrew’s House of Rugby, Russell spoke of the influence of former Munster scrumhalf Mike Prendergast at Racing 92.
“A lot of teams are now playing with the similar structure of the 1-3-3-1 and I first started playing that [for Scotland] with Vern Cotter. It just gives you that ability to play out the back or direct or to get it out wide. I’ve been given the freedom to do that at Racing, with Mike Prendergast.
“That’s working well for us as a team I think, especially with the players we’ve got. The quicker we can get the ball to the boys outside, the better. Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Juan Imhoff and Zeebs.”
Scotland isn’t Racing 92 and international rugby isn’t club rugby. But the return of Russell has been greeted with giddy expectation in full knowledge that his uniqueness can be fatal. A skip pass that ends with Exeter’s Jack Nowell intercepting and Henry Slade running in for a game-over try in the European final is part of the ongoing equation of risk and reward. But any coach with a beating heart has to play Russell.
More so as his replacement last year, Adam Hastings, has not returned from a shoulder injury and is not named in the squad. It is teed up for Russell. He just needs to keep all the balls in the air.