EXILED Scotland playmaker Finn Russell has spoken publicly for the first time about the events leading up to his walk-out from the Scotland team hotel on his first night of the pre-Six Nations camp, and has opened up about the breakdown in his relationship with national team head coach Gregor Townsend.
In an interview with The Sunday Times newspaper, the 27-year-old stand-off explained that the flashpoint in the hotel bar which has been widely speculated on over the last 21 days, and categorised by many (with some less than subtle SRU cajoling) as a “late-night drinking session”, is not the crux of the issue.
Russell has already missed the first two rounds of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, and it looks increasingly unlikely that he will be involved again whilst Townsend remains as head coach.
“The current situation, set-up and environment, I don’t think I want to play in that. I don’t think it’s good for me as a person or as a player,” Russell told The Sunday Times. “I’ve felt like this for more than a year, and the last three weeks have shown me that it doesn’t seem to be changing at all.
“I’d love to play for Scotland again because I love playing for my country. But until I see or feel the big changes that I need to get back playing my best, it’s going to be very hard for me to do it.
“Eight years I’ve had him as a coach, and I don’t really know him at all,” he said, referencing his time working with Townsend initially at Glasgow Warriors and then at Scotland since the summer of 2017 . “We’ve not got a personal relationship. With Racing, last year I couldn’t speak much to the coaches because my French wasn’t that good, but this year with [Irish backs and attack coach] Mike [Prendergast] I get on really well, I chat to him a lot and I’ve spoken to him a lot about this situation. It’s the same with Toto [head coach Laurent Travers] and [director of rugby] Yannick Nyanga.
“It’s a much more personal relationship. It’s like it was with Scotland under Vern [Cotter, Townsend’s predecessor]. When we’re training and playing, they’re my coaches, but with that we can have a good, honest chat and blether away like you would with family and friends. They treat you like an adult. After a game, they understand it’s your time to do what you need to. If you start coming in late for training or going out during the week, that’s when it’s a problem. 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, respect and trust, on and off the pitch.
“I want the best for Scotland and so I’ve questioned the environment to try and make it better. We [him and Townsend] have clashed quite a lot, him saying one thing and me saying another. It’s come to a point where I’m saying, ‘you can be you and I’m going to be me. That’s how this relationship is going to be.’ Well, it’s not really a relationship.”
Russell mentioned an “argument” with Townsend during half-time of last year’s famous Calcutta Cup draw at Twickenham, and that has been identified as the first outward sign that the relationship between player and coach was not great, but it appears to stretch back much further than that.
“A lot our game plan last year revolved around stats and kicking, and for me that’s not rugby,” he said. “Just play the game. Under Vern, it was a very simple game plan but you could play anything off it. Some of the [Scotland] meetings last year, it was like, ‘what are [we] actually trying to do here?’ It’s hard for the other boys to say anything. They’re contracted to the SRU. I know that’s also been the case [with what’s been said publicly] in the last couple of weeks. They’ve been building up to games, and [team] media [activity] these days is so controlled.”
Russell apparently told Townsend during the weeks leading up to this Six Nations that he had doubts about his continued involvement, but after playing for Racing 92 in a Champions Cup match against Saracens at Allianz Park, he took an evening flight from Luton to Edinburgh with his family and his Scotland team-mate Sean Maitland, who had been in the opposition that day, arriving in the nearby team hotel just before 9pm. The home-based contingent were already in camp, having played the day before.
Russell is part of Scotland’s leadership group, but in his absence the other members had apparently agreed that after a game, players would be allowed two beers each and that there would be a team night out after the Calcutta Cup match. Russell had “two beers with dinner” and “ordered another one”, which is when things started to unravel.
“The players at dinner were like, ‘no more drinking’. These are guys I know well, so I said, ‘what’s the problem, I’ve just played, I just want a couple of beers’ and they said that’s what the leaders had agreed,” he explained. “I’m part of the leaders group, but they’d had the meeting before I got there. I’d not had a say. So for me, straight away, it was set up pretty poorly.
“It refreshed all the memories about the environment. I’ve just played a game, my 13th in a row, flown straight up and it’s the exact same. I’ve spoken to Gregor two weeks beforehand to tell him how I was feeling and not heard back for 10 days. What’s going on? It’s also the case that a night out after England is fine for the boys employed by the SRU who will have that next week off, but me and some of the other boys will be back to play for our clubs. I know it can’t be changed for one person, but at least if we get a say at the time, we can come to an agreement. Again, though, it’s not about drink, it’s about the whole environment.”
Russell says he phoned his parents at 10pm, who came and picked him ups from the hotel at around 11.30pm. He missed the team meeting the following morning, then returned to camp that night for a planned meeting with Townsend, during which he was told he would not be considered for selection against Ireland on account of his “breach of team protocol” on the Sunday.
“For me and Gregor, it was a decent enough chat, I’ve never spoken to him properly like that before,” said Russell. “But still I felt we were going round in circles. I’m like, ‘I’m trying to tell you what I’m thinking, and we just go round again. You need to listen to me.’ I don’t really feel I get that from Gregor.”
Russell visited a psychologist at Townsend’s behest the following day, which appears to be linked to the very clear SRU narrative that this whole issue revolves around his relationship with alcohol.
“The psychologist understood what I was saying about me going out once a week after a game. He said, ‘you’re not on the front of newspapers, you’re not overweight, you’re performing well’. He didn’t see any issue. I’d had pretty much the same conversation with Gregor on the Monday night, and he said, ‘there must be something deeper inside, something you’re not telling us yet.’ I’m like, ‘what do you want me to say for you to be satisfied, rather than listening to what I’m saying?’”
“On the Wednesday morning, Gregor sent me a text saying, ‘if you want to go back to Racing, you are free to do that from today. Let me know if you decide to go back.’ For me, that text was, ‘you’re free to do what you want.’ But from then, it’s all been, ‘Finn’s left camp to go back to Racing, Finn’s this, Finn’s that’ when I’d said to Gregor, ‘if you want me here, I’m here. If you don’t, that [France] is where I need to be.’ The way this has all been spun, I’m the guy who left camp, I’m the guy who had the late night drinking session, I’m the guy who’s done this and that. It could have been sorted in-house. I didn’t turn up on the Monday and that was my choice, but since then it’s been just like, ‘see you later Finn’.”
Russell says that he had no contact from Townsend or the SRU between Thursday January 23rd until late last Sunday, when he received a call from Townsend to tell he was not being asked back into camp for the build-up to the England game.
“He just said he wasn’t changing anything in the squad for the England week. I didn’t really say much. The thing I said to Ali [Price, his close friend and former flatmate] was, ‘make sure the boys know it’s not anything to do with them. I’m not turning my back on my country or the boys, this is a personal thing between me and Gregor. I want to be with them. But just now it’s not really possible for me to be involved.’”
“I need to do what makes me happy and makes me play my best rugby. People can see the scenario as they want. But I need to do this for myself. It’s over a year I’ve been doing it for the country and for the fans. Before the last Six Nations, I was thinking the same. This is about me being honest and staying true to myself.
“People might not think it’s the right thing to do, but for me I believe it is. I believe we need change, it needs to move in a different route. We’re tracking along a road and it’s not been working for us, and it’s especially not been working for me.
“It’s a decision I’m going to make. If I look back in ten years’ time and when I’m retired and wish I hadn’t done, that’s fine. For me just now, for my rugby and my health, I don’t think I can do it. It’s not as simple as ‘have two weeks off, come back and it will be fine’. If only it was about that one thing [the ‘bust-up’].
“I’m going to back myself to play for Scotland again at some point. It’s definitely going to happen. The way it’s going to happen is for me to go back to my club, play really well, be me and happy.”