NEXT Friday night’s PRO14 play-off semi-final clash against the Scarlets will be Finn Russell’s last Scotstoun appearance as a Glasgow Warriors player. The fairy-tale ending to the 25-year-old’s time with the club, before he heads off to Paris next season to join Racing 92, would involve a victory which sets up a Grand Final encounter against either Leinster or Munster a week later. The alternative is the frustration of washing up short at the climax of a league campaign his side have dominated from the outset.
Plenty at stake then, but Russell assesses the big match with his customary nonchalance.
“Nah, it’s not a concern for me, it’s another game of rugby,” he shrugs. “Although there will be a lot of emotion around it, I am not too fussed by that. I am just going out there to do my job and get it done. Emotions are for after the game when it has all sunk in. Like most things, it won’t sink in until you’ve had a few days to think about it. I should be alright … I think.”
Those final two words, if uttered by anyone else, might suggest that he is not quite as relaxed about the situation as he is trying to make out; but, in this instance, it simply tells us that he hasn’t concerned himself too much worrying about it. Anyone who watched Russell’s recent roller-coaster Six Nations campaign will recognise that his greatest strength, and at times his biggest weakness, is the ability to float through pressure environments with minimum anxiety.
The good, the bad…
When everything was going wrong in Cardiff, Russell was one of the key decision makers who refused to adjust their approach to suit the circumstances. His determination to keep chancing his arm in the vain hope that his luck was about to change was impressive, in a catastrophic sort of way.
It didn’t work out on that occasion, and it wasn’t much better the following week although Scotland had enough about them to overcome shambolic France, but still Russell stayed true to his uninhibited philosophy.
Then came England, and all of a sudden we remembered why he is so crucial to everything Gregor Townsend‘s team stand for – with the pass which released Huw Jones in the build-up to Sean Maitland’s try showcasing just what an exquisite talent he is when on song.
That unshakable self-belief was evident again this week as he affably shrugged off the suggestion that the Warriors have recently lost some of their early season mojo just when they need to be hitting their best form.
“Nah, we are playing some good stuff. We are happy with the way we are going,” he assured his audience. “The results haven’t been going our way but we have been playing some good rugby, it’s just ball hasn’t gone to hand.
“We have created a lot of chances, so we are confident, and we back ourselves, which is good. We have a great home record, so we’ll use that and the crowd here are awesome. We are happy with how we have been tracking along. It’s a semi-final so its knockout rugby now. It doesn’t matter how you’ve played all year, it’s all down to 80 minutes at the weekend. All the boys will be ready for that.
“We’ve won two semi-finals before and these games always come down to the wire, so for us it’s about trusting in all the work we’ve done this week and next, trusting in the boys around you in the team. If you start worrying about the situation or what the consequences might be when you’re on the field, that’s when you make mistakes. So, first and foremost, it’s about trusting in the work we’ve done over the past year, and not worrying about the outcome – that will take care of itself.”
The big concern from a Scotland supporter’s perspective is whether Russell’s free spirit will be tethered by his move away from the Glasgow bubble where he has spent the entirety of his six-year professional career to an environment which won’t be as specifically tailored to suit his unique talents.
“I’ve thought about that but the way I play is why I decided to go to France and not England, or anywhere else,” he says. “The style of rugby they play over there is free-flowing and open, a lot of off-loading and lots of chances for being creative. If you look at the players at Racing, it’s a great team with world-class individuals so, for me, if I get a game with that team it will be great to get a run about with those boys and it should sit well with my style I think.
“That is the main reason I went, for my rugby. I have been at Glasgow for 6 years which has been amazing for me, but I feel that I want to go and get some new challenges and almost put myself outside the comfort zone and see how I react.
“I think that is going to be best for me: a different language, a different culture, a different style of rugby over there that will challenge me. I spoke to Greig Laidlaw a lot and he says that coming back after speaking French for a day he’s knackered. I think it is going to be pretty tough work, but I think for me that is going to be good. You get used to being here and what is happening. I’m trying to change and do the right thing in my career.”
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I love Paris…
It has been some journey for a lad from Bridge of Allan, who was earning £300 per week as an apprentice stonemason six years ago, supplemented by £50 per match to play lower league rugby with Falkirk after failing to command a 1st XV spot at Stirling County.
He took a wage cut to sign an academy contract with the SRU, played a season in the Premiership with Ayr and never looked back.
When it is put to Russell that it might be the case that he won’t appreciate what he has got at Glasgow until it is gone, he refers back to the horror injury he sustained when clashing heads with team-mate Zander Fagerson in May 2016.
“Getting my head injury opened my eyes to how quickly your game can be over, so this was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. If I go there and don’t like it then that’s what it is, but at least I’ve gone there and tried it, and had that experience, and can always look back on it. And I’ll still be 28 when I finish up there so still young enough that I can hopefully come back here and get a game,” he says.
“The severity of the injury makes you think of these things. Thankfully, nothing came of it and I was fine, but you do wonder what might have happened, and so you don’t want to be looking back in ten years’ time thinking: ‘oh I wish I took that chance I had to go to France and play’. It’s kind of like when I was a stonemason and had the chance to join the Glasgow academy. I’d have looked back and wondered what would have happened if I didn’t have a crack at it.”
Russell has been over to Paris a few times. The club have helped him pick out a place to stay, in the south-west of the city near the training ground, there is no pool and he laughs off a question about the Lamborghini he has reportedly treated himself to.
Girlfriend Emma Canning will stay in Glasgow but visit whenever she has spare time between qualifying as a lawyer and training as a heptathlete.
“I will definitely miss this club and at times I will wish I was back here. But, at the same time, I am looking forward to seeing what it’s going to chuck at me over there,” he reflects. “It’s such an opportunity for me and probably since I started at Glasgow I’ve thought I’d love to play in France at some point.”
As a rugby player, his unpredictability is a defining characteristic, but there is a constant within this free-wheeling approach to life: no matter where he goes or what he does, Russell is not going to die wondering.