WE’VE all seen the highlight reels of Finn Russell’s audacious passes, inventive kicks and mischievous sense of humour, but it was another less celebrated side of his character and play which went viral on Sunday night after he had helped Bath book their place in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup with a 29-25 victory over his old club, Racing 92, at The Rec.
Throughout a pulsating contest, the stand-off continually knocked over big runners coming down his channel. He also went looking for work in defence, such as when Racing attacked immediately after Bath had hauled themselves back from 8-22 down to 22-apiece with an hour played, only for Russell to tackle Henry Arundell into touch so as to prevent a score which would have swung momentum right back into the away team’s favour.
But it was the bone-shuddering hit on Cameron Woki, the giant French international second-row, early in the second half which really earned the plaudits.
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“My defence was decent enough today,” smiled Russell afterwards. “It was the first time for me playing an ex-team so I knew they were potentially going to target me, and they ran a lot of balls at me, which was fine. I wouldn’t like to think I am a player who backs away from defence and today I had to have it where it needs to be.
“The one on Cam was a bit of fun. After it we were laughing together. He just said to me: ‘I see you have learned how to tackle now’. I had dinner with him last night. Cam is a good friend of mine.
“He made a break, and I was coming across. I’ll talk him up a little bit and say he was off balance, so it wasn’t as big as everyone thinks, maybe.”
That Russell flair was also evident in flashes at various key moments throughout the contest, although it was notable that his biggest contribution to both the Joe Cokanasiga and the Will Muir tries was as a decoy, which highlights that it is not only what the Scotsman is able to do in possession but sometimes just his presence that sets the tone of games.
After years of scrabbling round in search of a way to recreate their glory days of the 1990s, Bath have finally got their act together this season, and Russell’s trademark swagger has undoubtedly been key to that.
“I don’t know what it has been like here before, but this year, in tough situations, we’ve kept belief, we’ve kept confidence, and everyone is obviously buying into it,” said Russell. “We’re still a work in progress, as every team is, but we’re getting good results which is helping.
“The goal at the start of the season was to get top four in the league and qualify in Europe, then once you get to knock-out rugby you never know what is going to happen. Every team competes to win, so we’re going to try and get into a position where we are in these knock-out games which means we have a chance to go on and win something.
“Having Ben Spencer inside taking so much control of exits and in the finish zone has been brilliant for me,” he added. “I can focus on other things which makes it much easier. His kicking game is probably the best in the world, I would say, and today he was the goal-kicker so that was more pressure off me.
“I think, for me, I’m just trying to link with the boys and get the excitement around the park with Cam [Redpath], Ollie [Lawrence], Joe, Will Muir and so on. I’m just trying to give them confidence, I keep saying that if I give you ball then back yourself and have a go. It sounds like a small thing but with the talent we’ve got in the team, giving boys confidence and belief goes a long way.
“I think confidence is one thing and belief is a different thing. With some of the games that we’ve won this year, and even when we lost to Sale away, the belief that we took from that was really big for us.
“But belief is not something you can switch on and off – it takes a long time to build it – so it is something which has been building under [head coach] Johann van Graan over the last 18 months, and some of the results we’ve had this season has really pushed that on.
“I just keep trying to tell them: ‘You are brilliant players so just go and believe in yourselves and believe in the process that we have’.”
With Gregor Townsend naming his Six Nations training squad tomorrow [Tuesday], it is heartening to see and hear that the national team’s key playmaker is in such fine fettle. He is in absolutely no doubt that his move to the West County after five years in Paris has helped him recover from Scotland’s disappointing World Cup campaign.
“Physically I was alright [after the World Cup],” said Russell. “I played three games out of four but every game I had a weekend off afterwards, so physically I was fine.
“With the disappointment, I wanted to get straight back in here, so that I almost didn’t have time to dwell on what happened. I had a week off three or four weeks after I came back in, and got away on a proper holiday to switch off a bit, but I think getting back in here and experiencing something fresh was really good for me to get over it.
“If I had stayed at Racing and gone back there, would it have been same again and dwelling on the World Cup? I think with a new team, new environment, new coaches, it has probably helped me get over the World Cup that I have had to start from scratch to an extent.
“It has energised me a little bit. Having new challenges and getting to know new players and a slightly different game-plan has been good fun. I’ve grown again since I’ve been here and, as a 10, the more experience like that you can get the better it is, I think.”
“I’ve spoken to Gregor quite a bit,” Russell confirmed. “He actually texted me yesterday, and every week we have been chatting. I think I’ve got a call with him tomorrow to talk through a few options with our attack for the Six Nations. But there are two games [with Bath] to go before that – we’ve got Toulouse and Bristol to play ahead of the Six Nations – so I’ve still got to do my job there.
“It will be different this year with no games for Bath during the tournament so I won’t have to go back and forward, which will be good for me, I think.”
Just as pleasing from a Scottish perspective was the impact off the bench of Josh Bayliss on Saturday, having missed the first half of the season with a thigh injury, while Cam Redpath made a strong case for recreating his midfield partnership with Russell at international level.
The Scotland No 10 was cautious about expressing his own opinion on whether Redpath or good pal Sione Tuipulotu – another dedicated follower of fashion – should be handed the No 12 jersey for Scotland’s Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff on 3rd February.
“I think with international rugby, the closer you are off the pitch, it then follows onto the pitch,” he mused. “I know them both really well. I play with Cam here, but have played enough with Sione, and we’re all on the same page.
“And other centres are playing really well at the moment as well, so it is a position where we are lucky enough to have a few options. If you look at how Glasgow played against Exeter on Saturday, it was Stafford McDowall at 12, Sione at 13 and Huw Jones on the wing, so it depends how Gregor views it, which could be different to how Franco Smith views it at club level.”
“I’m not sure what the centre combination will be, but I’m excited to see how it works.”
First things first, Bath head to Toulouse next Sunday knowing that their spot in the last 16 off the Champions Cup is already confirmed but looking for a win which would see them finish top of their pool and therefore assured a more favourable home draw in the knock-out phase.
In the opposition line-up, a certain Blair Kinghorn is likely to be wearing the No 15 jersey, having made a positive start to life in France since his mid-season switch from Edinburgh back in December.
“I spoke to him when he signed and just said to let me know if there is anything I can help with anything because I obviously had a bit of time over there, but I’ve not spoken to him recently,” explained Russell.
“I think the way that Blair plays, he’ll fit into their structure really well. He’s a brilliant player as we saw on Saturday when he set up Antoine Dupont by cutting through from a great ball out the back.
“I think he and his partner will love it there, he’ll love the style of rugby, and he’ll grow as a person and a player because he’ll be challenged on and off the pitch. For the rest of us Scotland players, that’s going to be brilliant.”
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