WE all know that rugby isn’t as easy as Finn Russell often makes it look. Neither is it as straight-forward as he sometimes makes it sound.
“For me, it’s simple, I just give the ball to Virimi [Vakatawa],” he says, when discussing Racing 92’s attacking threat ahead of Saturday’s European Champions Cup Final clash against Exeter Chiefs.
“Just don’t let them get within 30 metres, its simple!” he replies, when asked how his team plan to neutralise the Exeter juggernaut which has an unrelenting habit of picking up tries rather than penalties, no matter how long it takes them, every time they enter the opposition’s quarter of the field.
Russell is not being obtuse here, and he does expand on both points – but his initial assessments give an insight into the clarity of thought which sets him apart from many other players who are so busy over-thinking the situation that they forget to play what is in front of them.
“I think it happened quite quickly and naturally,” he explains of his on-field chemistry with Vakatawa. “We both get on really well off the field, have a laugh, and we both understand each other really well on the field.
“I think over time, as we’ve played and trained more and more together, there has been more things that we have added into it, and the relationship has grown and grown. Whether it is a chip kick over the top like in the semi-final, or a miss pass, he knows that if he gets in the right place, I will put the chip or the pass in the right place.”
As for keeping Exeter’s rampaging forwards at bay on Saturday: “As a group we know how dangerous they are there, and as a group we’ve got to be ready for that challenge at the weekend. For me as a 10, it is about how I clear from our own 30-metres as effectively as possible without giving Hoggy at full-back the opportunity to put pressure back on us.”
Which tees him up nicely for the inevitable question about going up against his old Glasgow Warriors team-mate on Saturday.
It has been speculated that the relationship between the pair is strained by the fact that one of Hogg’s first jobs as Scotland captain was to deal with the fall-out of Russell’s abrupt departure from the squad before the start of this year’s Six Nations, but that hasn’t been evident in the good natured banter which has been flying around this week.
Hogg has recalled that the last time he played against Russell was at under-14 level when the stand-off had leopard-print hair colouring. “It’s funny, he talks about my haircut but he keeps changing his hair and he’s gone back to what he had then with the blond tips,” retorted Russell yesterday.
“I had another interview with Hoggy the other day there so it was me and him having a laugh at this interview before we go into the final on Saturday,” he added. “It is how it is – we were team-mates at Glasgow, we’re good friends, but coming up against each other is what happens in sport so it’s fine.”
You can be sure that this bonhomie will not transfer onto the field on Saturday. “I will probably be doing a lot of kicking down towards Hoggy, so we have spoken [as a team] about what attacking threats he’s got and about where we can target him in defence,” Russell explained.
“It’s good that I know his game, but at the same time, and the other way round, he knows how I like to play and what I might look for, and he might be able to counter that. So, I might use my left foot this weekend to try and throw him off a little bit!”
Russell’s relationship with Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend might not be quite as jovial as it is with Hogg, but he does insist that their very public spat earlier this year has been consigned to the dustbin of history, and promises that both men are now committed to moving forward with a more positive relationship.
The 28-year-old was named in Scotland’s 40-man Autumn Series training squad on Monday, and although he won’t join up with the group until Sunday, a week after the home-based players, he says he would jump at the chance of picking up his first cap in over a year against Georgia next Friday night.
However, he can also understand why Townsend might prefer to go with the continuity option of playing Adam Hastings in the pivotal No10 slot.
“We’ve managed to patch things up – myself and Gregor – and that’s all in the past,” said Russell. “It is great to be back involved and the final is obviously on Saturday so it would be a normal six-day turnaround [before playing Georgia] which would be fine, for me anyway.
“But I’ve not really thought about it much with the final being this weekend, and there have not been any chats yet about the team selection for Georgia. I think from the conversations I’ve been having with Gregor it is all about getting back in camp and getting used to it all, and we’ll see about the Georgia game after the final.”
In the meantime, his whole focus is on Saturday. The Racing 92 squad have been based in Corsica this week, distancing themselves from Covid outbreak which hit the club a fortnight ago, and Russell is typically relaxed about the slightly surreal circumstances surrounding this game.
“Last week’s training was a little bit disrupted and this week has not been perfect as we’re still waiting on a couple of cases, so it’s not been ideal but it’s been good enough,” he said. “This year there are going to be a lot of weeks like this and it’s just how we are able to adapt to these situations.
“I think for us, we’ve been lucky enough to go to a hotel and been able to train Monday and Tuesday this week which means we can build up to this game with a full week’s training, being isolated in a bubble.
“We were tested today so we are waiting for the results coming back on that and we’ll take it from there.
“This game is massive for the club. We’ve been to a couple of finals before and never quite managed to get the trophy. I’ve not been in a final yet with them but chatting to the boys this week you get an understanding of how much they want to win this final and get their first Champions Cup title. We’re in a good place just now and it’s great fun.
“I moved here for a change, for a new challenge, to put myself in the position we’re in here, which is the final of the Champions Cup, and hopefully on Saturday we’ll manage to get a win and it’ll have worked out as well as it could have. It’s been great for me as a player and playing in this team has been amazing.”