"I almost feel more comfortable out there" - Finn Russell on playmaking, perceptions and fresh starts
"That was the first time I had to do anything like that... it made me grow as a player."
When Dan Carter informed Racing 92 that he would be finishing up at the end of the 2017/18 season, the French side were already well into their scouting drive to find their new No.10. Such is the attractiveness of a move to Racing that the Parisians had their pick of world-class options. They went for Finn Russell and it has been a perfect fit.
Russell is now in France a little under two years and he is loving life in the City of Lights. Racing only managed quarter finals in the Top 14 and Champions Cup but they added some smart signings in the summer of 2019 and were looking good on dual fronts, this season, when the Covid-19 pandemic called a halt to rugby.
Russell, like many of his other international teammates at Racing, opted to stay in France during their lockdown and keep as fit as a man can be while trying to get in some computer gaming, documentaries [he is loving The Last Dance] and video calls back home.
The Scottish outhalf joined Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy on the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby and [from 35:00 below] spoke about Racing's 'Globetrotters' backline, his stint in New Zealand learning from a former Munster star and how he wants to get back into the Scotland team when rugby resumes.
Finn Russell started playing rugby in Stirling's Wallace High School and played club rugby for both Falkirk and Ayr before Glasgow Warriors came calling. Russell and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, playing at centre and fullback, impressed for Scotland at the World Rugby U20 Championships in 2012 (the same year JJ Hanrahan won the 'Best Player' accolade) and Warriors coach Gregor Townsend brought him into the fold.
He picked up an injury with his first season with Glasgow and, along with Hidalgo-Clyne, was sent to New Zealand's Lincoln University for some summer experience in the land of the All Blacks.
Whilst he was at Lincoln, Russell was partnered with former Munster star Jason Holland as a mentor. "He helped me out and I got to know him quite well," Russell says.
"We were aligned with the trainers but you never trained with them. You watched them train but you don’t interact with them that much. Although you could see how they go around their work and how they do their day-by-day, and things like that. As a young player it was quite good to learn from them.
"In terms of analysis and preparing for a game, that’s the first time I did anything like that. As a coach at the time, he would make me, during the week, get the game-plan for the team I was going to play at the weekend and then present it to the team and do all the stuff like that. That was the first time I had to do anything like that. For me, it was pretty different but it was quite good and it made me grow as a player. And playing on a different team with a different style of rugby was pretty good for me, as a young player."
Russell returned to Glasgow for the 2013/14 season and initially got his run as an additional playmaking option at inside centre. The following season saw him play a pivotal role in Warriors winning the PRO12 title as he settled into the outhalf role, for club and country.
A large part of the Russell story is his attacking mind-set and willingness to back himself to make the big play, no matter where he finds himself on the pitch. There are the dummy passes, cross-field kicks and a passing range that gets his teammates coming on at pace and hurtling into space:
Every so often I'll just go back and marvel at this pass from Finn Russell from when we pumped England earlier this year. Absolute poetry. Like a magic trick. Russell and Jones with some sort of telepathic communication. pic.twitter.com/F8yGAryivj
— lesmondine (@lesmondine) November 14, 2018
Russell stayed on with Glasgow until 2018 but jumped at the chance to fill Carter's boots at Racing. Since arriving in Paris, he has continued to pull out the highlight reel moments and even the Munster faithful would have (in hindsight!) appreciated his nutmeg on Rory Scannell to set himself up for a try at Thomond Park last November.
"Even a couple of years before the move happened," he says, "I wanted to come over to France, just to experience it and try it. And I've loved it.
"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. Under different coaches, I've been given the freedom to do that and at Racing, with [former Munster scrumhalf] Mike Prendergast, I have been given a greater input into the attack. And I also know Mike is going to give me the freedom to do what I want to do on the pitch, and play how I want to play.
"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. Viremi Vakawata, Teddy Thomas, Juan Imhoff and Zeebs."
On Zeebs, it is clear that Russell has struck up a fast partnership with former Munster and Ireland star Simon Zebo. He recalls changing his flights after that drawn game with Munster, last November, to have a night out with Zebo in Limerick but jokes that the Cork native has yet to take him up on his invite to Glasgow for more of the same.
"I get on with Zeebs so well," he says. "It’d just be us having a laugh, or something like that.
"I suppose you saw with that Munster game, that we were having a laugh and stuff playing the game. That’s what it’s all about. You can enjoy yourself but you’re still playing some top rugby, and with a smile on your face. It’s been good fun with me and Zeebs. We clicked straight away. I think he’s enjoyed it because I’ve given him I don’t know how many walk-in tries! He’s pretty happy with that. But that’s just me doing my job so it’s fine! It goes both ways."
On that pass to Huw Jones or his nut-megging of Scannell, the 27-year-old says those moments 'just come naturally'. It is then that he opens up and offers an insight to his character.
While Russell may be one of the flashiest players currently operating in the northern hemisphere, he is quite reserved away from the game. Self-isolating, in Paris, during the pandemic has not thrown him too much, he says, as he was hardly out and about much before the rugby season paused. He continues:
"I’m quite… I like to have a laugh and a joke on the pitch but I’m quiet off it. I live by myself, I don’t do that much, I’m pretty chilled out. But when I get onto the pitch, whether it’s in training or in a game, I almost feel more comfortable there, which is quite good.
"Whether it’s talking in front of people or… even on the pitch over here, I’ll pretty much just speak French all the time. I feel more confident. I don’t know whether that’s because I know what I’m talking about, or I think I do anyway, I’m not sure. It’s like my comfort zone, sort of thing. I like being out on the pitch; it’s good fun.
"And that may be… it’s not the confidence but it’s me expressing myself and me having some fun out there. But I’ve been able to do that and whether you’re playing rugby and you’re doing good things - like a pass, kick or whatever - it’s good and I enjoy it.
"I don’t deliberately try and do things like that. I’m almost just playing what comes up in front of you and, I suppose, backing my skills that I’ll be able to pull off and do whatever I try to execute. Occasionally it doesn’t come off quite like that but that’s part of it. When I was younger, everyone would have said, ‘That’s risky’ or ‘You’re a risk-taker’ but the longer I’ve played, the less it’s getting looked at as a risk because it’s not that much anyway. I don’t think it’s that much of a risk because I’m confident in my skills and myself in being able to do it."
Finn Russell and his Racing teammates will be hopeful that they will be given an opportunity to close out the impacted 2018/19 season by going for silverware but, he says, it is a matter or staying on yellow alert and following the advice of the experts.
Beyond his commitments to Racing, he is hopeful of resuming his Scotland career and doing all that he can to make it as a fully-fledged member of the British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa in 2021. He has already spoken with Scotland boss Gregor Townsend about a summer return before the pandemic saw all those games postponed indefinitely.
"I have to keep playing the way I am," says Russell, "and doing everything I can on the field. From there, we'll see what happens.
"For me, it's all about playing well with Racing and doing my job well here. If that goes well, then do it with Scotland and hopefully... well, we'll see what happens after that."
WATCH THAT HOUSE OF RUGBY EPISODE HERE:
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Racing 92, Scotland and Lions star Finn Russell joins House of Rugby from Paris. He talks about his playmaking drive, Racing's stacked backline and The Last Dance. We hear from Hannah Tyrrell and Trimby admits some hard truths about Ulster's PRO12 Grand Final loss to Leinster.