THE conventional wisdom is that as athletes mature, they become more risk-averse. With age comes a greater ability to play the percentages, conservatism creeps in, and the fearlessness of youth becomes a thing of the past.
Thankfully, Finn Russell has never shown too much respect for convention. He is sure that, at 26, he does have greater wisdom and maturity now, in part because of his move from Glasgow to Racing 92. But, as he looks ahead to the World Cup, the Scotland stand-off is adamant that he will not change the fundamentals of his game. His adventurous spirit has not evaporated.
“I’m not going to change the way I play, regardless of being more mature or the experience I get,” Russell said on Tuesday at Scotland’s latest World Cup training camp in St Andrews. “I suppose I can look back and say ‘I tried this pass before and it didn’t come off,’ but the chances are that I have tried it before and it did come off. I don’t know, if I see a chance I’m going to keep going for it.
“Until I get to Greig’s age and my body starts slowing down a bit, maybe then I will start changing,” he joked, referring to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw. “Until then I won’t start changing the way I play at all.”
This is probably just as well for Scotland if they are to have any realistic hope of going far in the tournament in Japan. Russell may still remain capable of the odd clutch-your-head-in-anguish error, but if he took that high-risk element out of his game, the team as a whole would become more predictable. And that, surely, would consign them to a fate of being no more than respectable also-rans.
Ying and yang
Granted, there is a delicate balance between staying true to your principles and learning from your mistakes, but the No 10 is convinced he can strike it. As an example, he looked no further back than Scotland’s last outing, the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, and the no-look pass that produced the team’s final try for Sam Johnson.
“Yeah, done that a lot,” he continued. “Throw it forward a few times, the boys have dropped it. A lot comes down to people being on the same page. I’ve played a lot with Sam at Glasgow, so he knows to expect these passes and is a great player, so he can catch them the way he did.
“I’ve thrown that pass I don’t know how many times: chances are that sometimes it’s gone forward, sometimes he’s gone through, sometimes he’s dropped it. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. It’s a good thing to do.”
A handclap from Johnson seconds beforehand was the indication from the centre that the pass was on, but Russell reckons he had already decided to take that option. “The way it was going in the game, the way England were defending, [Manu] Tuilagi had been drifting out, and Nathan Hughes sold himself to come and get me – so it was pretty obvious for me what the option was. I think even before I got the ball I knew what I was going to do, just through the – what was it, 60 minutes, 70 minutes before?
“I knew before I got the ball. I predicted what they were going to do, what the option was. It’s good having the no-look pass, but I think it would have been the same if I had looked at Sam.”
Against the odds
Of course, you do not want to be 31-7 down before you start playing, as was the case at Twickenham back in March. And you would probably be wrong to seek too much inspiration from a match that ended up 38-38, even if that was enough for Scotland to retain the Calcutta Cup. Nonetheless, Russell is convinced that the second-half comeback marked an important stage in the evolution of the team – specifically, because he had the self-confidence to disagree with head coach Gregor Townsend at half-time about how the parlous position in which Scotland found themselves should be remedied.
“With all players and coaches you need discussions like that. It has to be open and honest. Whether that is myself, another player, you need to have these discussions and say what you think. You might be wrong ,but as long as you feel comfortable saying it . . .
“That’s what I try and get out of the young boys. I ask them, ‘what do you think of that, what do you think of this?’ The more the young guys speak they will see things different to others.
“At half-time in that game something was not working. I was just saying what I thought we had to do. Greig made a few points; Gregor had his points as well. I suppose rather than just have Gregor saying we have to do this and that, the more heads you have working together, the better the outcome.
“It’s what I’m like. I’m always going to stay true to myself. If I don’t think something is working I am happy to express it. I was a bit frustrated at how it was going, and there are probably a few factors there as to why I said it and made me express myself as I did.
“To be honest, the second half is a bit of a blur. It just kind of happened. We had nothing to lose. The game was almost done at half-time and we just kind of played with no fear, no worries, and played good Scottish rugby. We just backed ourselves, we were confident and got a great result in the end. I think when we do go out and back ourselves and play with confidence, with no fear, we can put some of the best teams in the world under pressure.”
Russell may have sparked the recovery against England, and if Scotland are to thrive in Japan they will need him to be at his best. But he will not be alone in that: far from harbouring any illusions about being able to do everything himself, he is convinced that the whole squad will need to excel, just as they did, belatedly, at Twickenham.
“It does have to be a collective approach. No team can rely on one individual. I’ll try and take a lead on the attacking side, but that will be more through the week, and me doing the analysis and review and getting as much from that as possible.
“But I’m going to be going to my centres, my nines, my full-backs, whatever, and asking them what they think, because they’re doing their job as well. I don’t really know how to play wing, so I need to know what they want from me, and they need to know what I want from them. If we’re all on the same page it will work best for us, so for that to happen we need to be questioning and challenging each other and keeping everyone accountable – in my opinion, in attack anyway – for their own job in the team.
“The Six Nations was frustrating – we might have had an amazing half or a great 60 minutes and then either fall away at the end or not perform at the start. We need to build a consistency in training – there’s small things we can do in training to hopefully lead into the games and the consistency will come.
“For myself as well, yeah yeah, I need some consistency, but I’m still going to keep playing the way I’m going to play. And then the World Cup, four group games, you need to be at the top of your game to get out of the group to start with, and then after that it’s knockout rugby. I’m just going to make sure I’m in the best shape I can be, and prepared as well as I can for the World Cup. I don’t want to look back and think if only I did this or that differently it could have been a different outcome. I’m just going to keep doing the same, but I want to be in the best shape and mentally in the best place I can be for it.
“I think when the team plays well it’s easy for me, the 10, to be the guy that’s controlling the game. If I’m on my game then it’s going to be easier for them.
“It works hand in hand, but I don’t believe it’s one individual that’s going to get us to the quarters or semis or final, wherever we get to. I think it’s going to have to be everyone on the same page.”