THERE was a school of thought just a few months ago that Finn Russell had played his last game in a Scotland jersey. Omitted from the national squad for the Autumn Nations Series, the stand-off was clearly out of favour with head coach Gregor Townsend, who insisted that Adam Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Ross Thompson were all in better form.
It was an implausible claim, which perhaps hinted at a breakdown in the relationship between player and coach – a relationship which has often been fractious in the past. But then Hastings was injured, Russell was recalled, and the rest is history. Not only has the Racing 92 playmaker been restored to his rightful place in the Scotland team, he is performing at the top of his game.
His display in the 29-23 win over England in round one of this year’s Six Nations was impressive enough, but his performance in Saturday’s 35-7 victory against Wales was even more impressive. After that game, he spoke to the press, beginning by explaining how he and Townsend had managed, in his own words, to “get back on the same page”.
“When he asked me in November about coming back in after Hasto got injured, I said I was keen but I needed to chat through a few things before I came back in,” Russell explained. “There were a few things I may not have been happy with, or he might not have been happy with.
“It wasn’t a case of clearing the air, it was more about us getting back on the same page and being open and honest with each other as to where he is at mentally with his gameplan and how he wants things to run, and me having my input and saying what I think as well. The best thing is both of us being on the same page and that allows us to play as we did.”
You became a father in November. Has that changed you?
“Becoming a father wasn’t the biggest thing. It was probably more when we found out my partner was pregnant and that then gave me a new responsibility straightaway. It wasn’t just me, it was three of us. That probably helped a little bit.
“The last four and a half years I’ve been in Paris on my own. My partner moved over just after the Six Nations last year. Having someone with me day in and day out has probably helped me a bit, without me knowing I needed that. That’s probably helped me a lot, having the new responsibility of her falling pregnant and having her with me. That’s probably a big factor in how I’m playing just now. It was something I needed. Before, I was coming up 29, 30, living in Paris on my own and doing what I wanted. It’s been great for me.”
Are you enjoying your rugby more now?
“I’m loving my rugby, I’ve always loved it. Last year was probably the only year that I didn’t enjoy it much. There were a few factors in that. I was probably fatigued last year after the Lions and then going straight into the season and not getting much time off over in France.
“Personally I didn’t change what I was doing to try and find solutions. I was living in Paris on my own and it’s hard to change when you are on your own. I was forced to change by my partner falling pregnant. I think it was something I was probably waiting for, to get that new responsibility and a new kind of life. I think I’ve adapted pretty well to it.
“The second she found out it was like, ‘Here we go’. This was the next step in life. Everyone will go back to how it was spelt out about going out and having nights out and stuff. It’s still the case.
“We’ve had nights out since we’ve had the baby, but I think that responsibility and having someone else there with me has been good for me. If I’m having a down day or I’m tired I can go back and there are different things in the house, not just me and the PlayStation, which is good.”
Were you carrying injuries last season?
“I don’t think I was carrying an injury. I was just probably fatigued and I put a bit of weight on. The week I was meant to get off after November was cancelled because of Covid, so I didn’t actually get time off until April last year.
“I went through the whole year having to play, thinking I was going to get a week off and never got it. It was not the coaches’ choice; it was just how it fell with Covid. This year I got a week off after November and I should get a week off after the Six Nations. The relationship I have with my coach over there – he understands the demands of international rugby so therefore he has given me a couple of days off to chill out and get the body right for Saturday.
“Last year was the first time I’ve been mentally fatigued and out of shape and not enjoying my rugby as much. There was a lot of learning in that for me if it ever comes round again [as to] what I can change and adapt to keep trying to play well.”
Would you prefer to have next weekend off rather than turning out for Racing?
“We’ve got Brive at home and I’ll play that game. It’s a big game for us because we need to win that game at home, hopefully with a bonus point for the league. It doesn’t really stop. I need to get back to my club mentality on Monday.
“It’s how it is. I’ve done it now for four and a half years. I’m getting used to it and I know what to expect. The coach called me on Thursday and said ‘we need you to come back and play’. We will not train Monday and Tuesday so I will get a couple of days off and then be ready for the game on Saturday. It’s just how it is. I can’t moan or argue about it because it was my decision to be over there. I love playing rugby just now so why would I not want to go back and play?”
Would you say that Gregor trusts you more now?
“He definitely has trusted me in the past. There are a lot of different factors to how we are playing and attacking now. Since November, Gregor and I have kept in touch, we’ve kept that relationship good. It’s easy, but it can fall apart quickly if that makes sense.
“The way that me and Gregor have kept on the same page, he has allowed me to be me and I’d probably matured a bit having a baby and my partner falling pregnant. There have been a few changes and I think Gregor and I get on better than we ever have done before.
“It’s not just us chatting about rugby, him being the coach and me being the player. It’s more just us chatting away and getting to know each other. We actually had that in 2020 and then came back in and had a good Six Nations in 2021. We are both on the same page now and have a good relationship.”
Where does Saturday’s performance rank among all your games for Scotland?
“It was good, it was really good. For me, I played well. I pretty much did my job as a 10, which is to make the other boys look good, to create these chances for them to finish off. I missed a few kicks and put a couple balls out on the full, which was disappointing for me, but I was happy.
“It was the first game my daughter was at. Maybe that’s why they gave me man of the match! It was a special game for me because she was there for the first time. We got a great result but I played quite well.”
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Tell us about your offload for Kyle Steyn’s first try
“I think I actually enjoyed the pass to Blair better. The one-two with Kyle was good as an offload, but the pass to Blair in the first half when Sione gave it back to me and I threw it in front of the winger, for me as a 10 that was more pleasing as he had hit a good line.
“The winger had come up and there was a chance of an interception, but I managed to get in front of him to create the two on one. We didn’t manage to score, but I prefer a pass like that more than an offload. Offloads are the easy bit.”
Can Scotland target the Championship title now?
“I think that’s a long way away yet. There are still three games to go. Last week we were definitely happy with the result, but we knew we had a lot more in us. We knew from previous experience of winning that first game that we had to back it up this week. In two weeks’ time, when we go over to France, it will be a massive test for us, probably the biggest test we’ve had, trying to back up the first two wins.
“We know the job is not even halfway done. There is belief in the team, but we need to keep ourselves grounded. There is no point in us starting to run ahead with it and thinking about the second last and the last game. We need to go over to France and perform as well as we can.”