GLORIOUSLY unpredictable or infuriatingly irresponsible? A prince with the world at his feet or a jester with feet of clay? No previous Scotland player has floated more easily from triumph to disaster and back again than Finn Russell, sometimes within the time-frame of a single half of a rugby match. Only two things are for certain: he won’t hang up his boots wondering what might have been, and there won’t be a dull moment for those of us watching him on this roller-coaster journey.
The 26-year-old says he has matured as a person and a player since his summer switch from Glasgow Warriors to Racing 92, but then adds that he has lost none of that sense of adventure which has made him such a compelling – and at times infuriating – proposition as Scotland’s chief playmaker since his international debut back in 2014.
On the contrary, his experiences in Paris have reinforced his commitment to pushing boundaries in order to stretch opposition defences and trigger his own team’s full attacking potential.
“With the players we have at Racing, the way I’m thinking is if we can hold on to the ball then we’re more dangerous in attack than if we kick it to the other team,” he reasons. “The way I’m playing and the way the team are playing over there is quite out-the-back and looking to get around the outside of teams – as well as playing through them – so one thing I’m driving for is for the [Scotland] boys to have more confidence in going wide. It is hard against blitz defences but, playing in the Top 14 you get that every week and we’ve managed to get outside. I’m trying to get the boys to do that, to back themselves, instead of playing a one-out direct style.”
Russell has never lacked the courage of his convictions, but you get the feeling that there has been a subtle yet crucial shift in his mind-set, with his assimilation into the French way of doing things providing reassurance that he can be both a maverick and a commander in the Scotland back-line.
“It’s confidence, yeah, but it’s also because I’m so happy,” he says. “I’m loving life over in Paris, and that’s one of the things that breeds confidence. I know I’m playing good rugby over there and that gives me confidence, which means I can back myself.
“When I come back, it feels different,” he adds. “Although I’m playing more I feel fresher mentally. There’s a bit of confidence, and a few different things to do with moving clubs that have helped me.”
All of which means that Russell is not particularly perturbed about the prospect of having to scoot back to Paris during the Six Nations fallow weeks to play club rugby. With Patrick Lambie – the other marquee stand-off in the Racing squad at the start of this season – being forced to retire from the game last week due to concerns over the number of concussions he has suffered, the Scotsman’s importance in the team’s push for the Top 14 play-offs has increased exponentially.
“It’s fine,” he replies, when asked about the workload. “I get on with the coaches at Racing really well. It just is what it is. I have to go back and play.
“I’m in a different mindset from when I was at Glasgow, when you would know that playing the first two games meant getting the third week off, then you play a game and get the next week off. Whereas I know now that I could go seven, eight, however many games on the bounce.
“I’ve just played seven in a row there, so it was good getting last weekend off. It could be the same [run of games] again, if not more. So, it’s about having a different mindset. When I signed to go play for Racing, I knew this is what could happen so I was ready for it.”
Change is as good as a break
In fact, rather than being fatigued by the twin demands of club and country, Russell believes the changing of scenery is having an invigorating effect.
“When I was at Glasgow, because it was still the SRU, there was a big focus on the international stuff, whereas in France the focus is on my club rugby and not worrying about anything to do with Scotland,” he reflects. “It’s been good for me, because everything has just changed up a little bit – freshened everything up for me.
“I guess, when I first came into Glasgow, it was all fresh. So, going to France has not been about learning anything new but just going back to where I was a few years ago when I was coming into the team at Glasgow and Scotland.”
Russell is clearly in a good place right now. Which is excellent news for Scotland. He plays on the edge, and we have to accept that there will be consequences to that from time to time, when he doesn’t get it quite right. But when he is on song, his ability to unstitch the opposition more than makes amends for those off days.