A tale of two drop-kicks: Finn Russell versus Dan Biggar

Long-range shot at goal by Scotland stand-off was audacious but not reckless

Finn Russell's long range drop-goal attempt kept Wales on their toes. Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Finn Russell's long range drop-goal attempt kept Wales on their toes. Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

OH, how we laughed when Finn Russell launched that ludicrously ambitious drop-goal attempt from about 47 metres out with 54 minutes played and Scotland leading 17-14 in Saturday’s match against Wales at the Principality Stadium.

Classic Finn. He has never kicked a drop-goal in international rugby before, so he might as well start with an absolute worldy. Dave Rennie – Russell’s erstwhile coach at Glasgow Warriors and a no-nonsense character – once described the stand-off’s appetite for audacity as “trying to pull flowers out of his backside” (albeit the New Zealander did have an ulterior motive when he uttered those words given the playmaker was just about to disappear to Racing 92 and the coach was pushing the idea that next in line Adam Hastings was a more-rounded, level-headed number 10).

The fact that Russell’s effort wobbled harmlessly into Dan Biggar’s arms 15 yards short of the intended target was predictable, and it did hand possession back to Wales, but there was no real damage done because the Welsh clearance to their 10-metre line gave Scotland possession back almost exactly in line with where their stand-off had just kicked from. If nothing else, it gave Wales another thing to think about as they worked to keep one of the game’s most unpredictable attacking threats in his box.


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Perhaps keeping the ball in hand would have created an opportunity for Scotland’s dangerous back-field runners to have a go against a fragmented Welsh defence, but – hand on heart – none of us were cursing Russell at the time. We still felt Scotland had the beating of this Welsh side despite the stop-start nature of the visiting team’s performance up to that point. They just needed to produce one more passage of play as slick as the Darcy Graham try and we recognised that if that was going to happen then it would be because the chief architect was playing his natural game. Remember that Russell had a pivotal role in that Graham try with a long pass which gave the little winger the glimpse of a chance he needed.

We all know that Russell is at his best when he is operating on instinct. The drop-goal attempt strayed from ‘calculated gamble’ into ‘wishful thinking’ but it was a no risk move, and he has an impressive back catalogue of match-transforming moments achieved through attempting something out of nothing.

Unfortunately for Scotland, Russell’s pass to set up Graham’s try was an isolated moment of magic from their great sorcerer in this 80 minutes, and with the team’s other leading creative force, Stuart Hogg, also struggling to find his mojo, their attack lacked the bite to really make life uncomfortable for the hosts.

It was only as the dust began to settle after Scotland’s defeat that focus turned to the Russell drop-goal attempt, which came to be viewed in some eyes as proof of his flippant attitude to the game. The stand-off’s habit of smirking his way through adversity and of going for one-handed intercepts was also introduced as evidence by the scapegoaters – who are happy to forget until it next suits them that Russell has consistently turned games on their head with his laughing cavalier routine and from his betting the house on being able to pull off an interception.

Well, the interception didn’t come off on this occasion, but you can see why he went for it, and let’s not forget that the yellow card only came after Nic Berry was prompted by the TMO. Initially, the referee didn’t even regard it as a penalty. The sin-binning was the right decision, but on another day things might have turned out very differently. That’s what you get with Russell.

Sometimes his stunts work, such as the interception which tied that crazy match against England in 2019. Sometimes they don’t but he gets away with it, such as his mad, charged-down drop-goal attempt in the final minute of last year’s Caclutta Cup match. Saturday wasn’t his day, but why are we focussing on Russell’s desperate (and successful) attempt to stop a near certain try on his own line, rather than the needless penalty given away near halfway a few minutes earlier by George Turner playing the ball on the deck, which put Scotland under that pressure?

Pep Guardiola once said of his mentor Johan Cruyff: “If a genius does it right, and that’s nearly always, the result is perfect. But if a genius does something wrong, it goes so incredibly wrong that you want to murder him. Only geniuses take those risks.”

Russell’s vision, his willingness to back his ability and instincts, are his greatest weapons. It’s the nature of the beast – take away his claws and you are left with a pussycat.

You want conformity? You want to play rugby by numbers? Then Russell is not and never will be your man. But be careful what you wish for.

Head coach Gregor Townsend could cut out the danger of any future lapses by replacing him with someone more reliable/conservative, but that creates problems elsewhere in the game-plan, because Scotland don’t have the power to steamroller their way to success. They need an edge somewhere else.

 

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Russell’s opposite number on Saturday, the great Dan Biggar, is cut from different cloth but just as influential when on song – which he was against Scotland

He will never be as flash as Russell – he would never try to be – but he kicked accurately and cleverly, and he managed his team with the authority of a man who has never lost the desire to get the best out of himself and those around him throughout his 100 cap international career.

“Dan, for me, epitomises what you want in a rugby team and that’s someone who fights for every last inch,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac afterwards. “He doesn’t give an inch and not only does he fight to win every blade of grass on the pitch, he also does a good job with the match officials. I’m very pleased he was able to do a good job today and captain the team to victory.”

Wales had a limited game-plan which played to their strengths, with every member of the team buying in. Keep in mind that while this was not one of the great Welsh sides, neither was it a team of mugs, and some of the more hysterical Scottish reactions to Saturday’s defeat have shown a shocking disregard towards a side in which 15 out of 23 members of the match-day squad were part of last year’s championship winning effort.

Essentially, this was a contest between two evenly matched teams. The Welsh starting XV contained seven Lions tourists with a total of 11 Lions Test caps between them, compared to six Lions and also 11 Test caps in the Scotland line-up. The Welsh starting XV had a total of 532 caps to their name, with 263 more – including two Lions – to come off the bench,, Scotland had 553 caps to start with just 126 – also including two Lions – on the bench, and remember it was in the final 15 minutes that this match got away from the visitors.

During that crucial last quarter of an hour, the hosts threw Jonathan Davies into the fray to win his 94th cap for Wales, his 100th in total once his rich Lions pedigree is added in. At 33, he may be in the twilight of his brilliant career, but that is an awful lot of experience and know-how to add to a tense situation.

Scotland had more form and momentum coming into the game but no divine right to win against a Wales side desperate to deliver in front of a fervent home support after their Dublin disappointment.

Two minutes after Russell’s carding, Biggar slotted the drop-goal which ultimately won it for Wales, from 15-yards out and directly in front of the posts. It was as close as a sure thing as you are likely to get, and if he missed then play would have been called back for a penalty to Wales. It was a team effort. No need to pull any flowers out of his backside.

Two teams moulded in the image of their chief playmaker. Scotland set out to absorb pressure through the resilience of their defence (in which Russell made 10 tackles, equal most of any Scottish back alongside Chris Harris) and the belligerence of their breakdown work (much weakened by the unavailability of Jamie Ritchie), then looked to their outstanding backs to inflict decisive wounds with rapier thrusts. Wales played the percentages.

It was a heart-lifting demonstration of a team which needed to win finding a way to do precisely that. Fair play to Wales.


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About David Barnes 2992 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

15 Comments

  1. All good comments after yet more Cardiff misery and it is a part of the frustrations of being a Scotland supporter.
    Good coaches learn from mistakes (hopefully GT falls into that category) and whilst we are in a purple patch with the back row and front row they continue to select players of limited ability in the no. 8 Jersey. I am fed up seeing Gilchrist selected and would highlight v Wales his inability to catch the ball plus his penalty count for lying on. A big unit he is but lacks a real physicality and cannot recall any dynamism going forward or needing trainers attention due to suffering a bit of contact biffo. Don’t subscribe to his tackle count being up there as just as with Harley at Glasgow need so much more going forward.
    Time to get Haining in and injuries apart give him a run in the team. Look at all our rivals and they have aggression in spades. Just what Haining can offer.

  2. Sometimes players coming back from a Lions tour don’t get into their stride the next season, maybe Watson is one of those. I’d start Darge v France.
    Redpath had played 2 or 3 games for Bath so should be fit.
    Maybe Haining lacks gametime.
    Re stand offs – Biggar sat deep & played a simple game well.
    Russell was played well by the Welsh and was under pressure, he wasn’t able to express himself, lack of a ball playing centre intensified the problem.

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  3. Wales successfully carried out their limited game plan designed to stop us playing. We could’ve been 0-14 up within 10mins given the ball and territory we had, but……….
    GT picked the wrong team, Redpath and Haining should’ve played, Redpath for his 2nd 5/8 abilities and Haining for his agility to break/challenge the gain line.
    Harris must be doing something right but I’d personally not have him in the 23

    • Completely agree re Haining and Redpath, John. Think it might be a lack of game-time for both in the lead-up which cost them but maybe with a bit of luck they will appear for their clubs this week. Strangely enough the Mish has been subdued and might get a rocket being benched.
      France are a momentum, confidence team (as are most but Feance particularly so) and the only way I can see to put them on the back-foot is having specialist carriers in the forwards on the park; Bradbury and Haining are. Get them running at the 9-10 channel in attack and in their faces defensively, upsetting both through any possible means. Aye we have to play our own game but there have to be elements of spoiling too imo.
      Harris i’d like to see in an opposite role, coming on to shore things up if we get our noses in front. Fickou is at his best and most destructive cutting inside so try and move him outwards where practicable.

      • Sometimes players coming back from a Lions tour don’t get into their stride the next season, maybe Watson is one of those. I’d start Darge v France.
        Redpath had played 2 or 3 games for Bath so should be fit.
        Maybe Haining lacks gametime.
        Re stand offs – Biggar sat deep & played a simple game well.
        Russell was played well by the Welsh and was under pressure, he wasn’t able to express himself, lack of a ball playing centre intensified the problem.

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  4. Another good article. TOSL seems to have found its voice of late and it’s welcome given the, as you say, hysteria that came out after the Wales game. I think the hero to zero/blame-game approach to any defeat is at best exhausting over the course of a tournament like the 6N and at worse pretty damaging to the minds of fans and players (if they read it) alike. My two cents on the game itself comes down to the penalty count that Iain spoke about in his last article. Cut that down and we’re good enough to start winning again no matter the game plan or the opposition.

  5. I would have said Biggar was far better, not just because of what he’s won over the years or his consistency of performance, but because he was smiling after the match and not during it (despite probably wanting to laugh a few times at his opposite number’s efforts).

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  6. Correct sir, clear and very scorable try scoring opportunity ignored.
    However that was the winning score so………

  7. Poor decision that won the game by 3 pts don’t compute & as Russell has actually never dropped a goal in his 1st class career pelters won’t be reqd…

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    • I’ll try again and type slowly. Biggar has a pen adv in an almost unmissable position. If he tries to play and get a try and fails, he still gets the match winning (as it turned out) 3pts. But a 3pt lead with plenty of time left for us to draw level with one penalty. Had he played and succeeded in manufacturing a try, we needed 3 pens to win if converted, or a converted try to draw level. Even only an unconverted try, we need a minimum of 2 pens to win.
      It was a really poor decision. Playing for the try was a no lose situation for Wales. Should have been a no brainer
      Whether Russell made the same decision in the same situation is moot – but if he did he would be getting pelters precisely because it would have been a poor decision.

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  8. Poor decision that won the game by 3 pts doesn’t compute & as Russell has actually never dropped a goal in his entire 1st class career, he’s got the DG yips, pelters won’t be reqd…

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  9. with a pen adv, Bigger taking the DG was a poor decision. He should have played for the try and 5/7pts, to take Wales more than a single 3pt pen clear in a tight match. The ref was always brining it back for the simple pen if wales failed to score.

    Odd how Bigger gets plaudits, when if Russell had tried the same in the same situation he would get pelters

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  10. And fair play to you Barnesey, excellent article, likewise Iain before. Yes I think most of the frustration comes from us all knowing the players are capable of better. I watched a clip of Irish pundits discussing the Scotland game and, while their views verged on impudent, they rather had a point; even if the irony of Matt Williams spouting won’t be lost on more than a few. We want to see, not hear about, “something special” as Hoggy keeps banging on about with wee Darcy now joining in. Excellent players both (I actually thought Hogg’s kicking was decent and he bettered Lian Williams) but lads, get your heads down, do what we know you can do and shut them up rather than having Williams et al telling you to button it!
    Finn will undoubtedly benefit from what looks like a Maitland-esque, all-court player in Redpath outside him but we ought to be careful putting excessive expectation, therefore pressure, on him. Not everything Finn tries will come off but having a cool foil outside to tidy up I think will work well. For me, slide Tuipulotu out one, Redpath to start, Skinner into 2nd row with Haining (is he available/fit?), Bradbury or both in back-row for France. Arm-chair stuff of course but Haining was massively effective last year in Paris with his physicality and on-field barminess -i.e. all the smiles and huge pats on the head he was doling out. The 9/10 axis with France can be got at, likely more by spooking them.

    • We have to hope Redpath can be to Russell what John Leslie was to Townsend. Hutchinson is another intelligent centre deserving of consideration.
      I agree our 2nd row needs to be more dynamic, with Gray particularly below his best, but might favour Cummings’ return, with Skinner covering the back row and/or 2nd row on the bench. Darge could be an option at 6, having played there before. No word of Bayliss returning for Bath yet and I don’t know enough about Andy Christie to comment.

  11. That’s what you get with mercurial players. Moments of brilliance that few of any others would try or even see.

    We are a better team with Russell in it.

    Not many other players staking a claim to grab the game by the skin of the neck either. It’s a team game after all.

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