FINN RUSSELL has promised that this World Cup will not be the last ride of Scottish Rugby’s laughing cavalier.
While his old partner in crime, Stuart Hogg, announced the hanging up of his boots with immediate effect three weeks ago, the talismanic stand-off has just signed a three-year deal with Bath. And he has never been a character for half measures, so there was no real chance of him retiring from international rugby in order to maximise his club career.
“I’ve still got another two [World Cups] in me, I reckon!” he quipped. “I’m only 30. The way Hoggy played, he was different as a full-back to me as a number 10, so I’m not looking at this World Cup as my last, it’s just the next one.
“I’ve got three years on my contract at Bath so that will take me to not far away from the next World Cup and then I’ll see how I’m shaping up at that time.”
Russell shrugged off the suggestion that Hogg’s retirement will pile even more pressure on to his shoulders with the same sort of nonchalance as he displays when nipping through half-gaps with ball in hand on the rugby field.
“I think since Duhi [Duhan van der Merwe] scored that try against England, he’s taken all the heat off,” he reasoned. “Hoggy was obviously very high profile – more so than me – and it is different without him in camp, but at the same time it gives other boys the chance to step up like Blair Kinghorn has done, putting that hand up to be the next guy in the full-back jersey.
“Duhan has made a great name for himself during the last couple of years with the Lions and in the most recent Six Nations, and wee Darcy [Graham] is back scoring two tries at the weekend, so I wouldn’t say it puts any more pressure on me, it just gives some of the other boys a chance to get some TV time!
“What Hoggy brought was just so much experience at the top level, so I was able to bounce questions off him and we got on really well,” he added. “It’s obviously different having Blair Kinghorn or Ollie Smith playing there for us – but the way Blair has been training at full-back has been really good.
“When it’s been me and Blair in the same team at training, we know he can step in and play 10 really well. So, we’ve interacted really easily and chopped and changed who’s at 10 all the time. Sometimes if he’s in the wide ruck, he might jump in at 10 in the next phase, which allows me to be a bit wider.
“So, there’s a bit more change there, and it’s been great to see because it’s quite a new relationship between us as a 10 and 15. He’s a big guy, really quick, he’s been hitting the ball well and he’s got a lot of different attributes to Hoggy.
“Looking at the backline now, Ben White at scrum-half has just a couple of caps, Sione Tuipulotu is pretty new and Huw Jones has only just come back in. But the relationships we all have with each other means we can bounce questions off each other. Whether you’ve had five games or 100, everyone is on the same level and has got their opinions which is great to see.”
This will be Russell’s third World Cup, and while he is not viewing it as his last, neither does he want to return from France feeling that it is another opportunity missed following the contentious quarter-final defeat to Australia in 2015 and the pool stage collapse after big losses to Ireland and Japan in 2019 – after which he had a very public fall-out with national team head coach Gregor Townsend which meant he didn’t play in the 2020 Six Nations.
“There are quite a few of the boys who will be going to this World Cup who were also over in Japan,” he said. “That was a really frustrating World Cup. We didn’t manage to perform at our best and didn’t get out that group. That led into the next season, and we all know what happened then.
“This group is very different, we’re all having a lot of fun and training really well. The coaching has been very different between now and four years ago which I think is great. I’d say we’re better prepared ahead of this World Cup than the last one, albeit we might have a tougher pool.
“The opening game against South Africa in Marseille will be massive. I’ve never played at that stadium, but I’ve heard it’s amazing. In terms of the atmosphere, the hype around it, it’ll be great. I just want to perform as well as I can.
“I did the 2015 World Cup and the 2019 World Cup, but, for me, I think this could potentially be the best one for us as players,” he continued. “I know what the French crowds can be like, and I know what the environment can be like in France building up to big games. Obviously we have Richie Gray as well and he knows all about it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to chat to the boys and let them know what it’s going to be like.”
Before that he must get through Scotland’s warm-up schedule. After sitting out Scotland’s winning start to their World Cup warm-up schedule against Italy last weekend, Russell is expected to feature in this coming Saturday’s visit to Murrayfield of France. There is a case for wrapping a player so central to the team’s chances of success in cotton wool, but he argues that would be a mistake.
“It has been six or seven weeks I’ve not played for so it will be good to get out there this weekend and get back to playing well as quickly as possible,” he reasoned. “I might play well straight away – I’m not sure – but after that many weeks off it is very different going from training to a Test match against the No 2 team in the world.
“I think these next three [warm-up] games will be very important for myself and the team to make sure we are in as good condition as we can be going into the World Cup.”
Russell added that he was impressed by Ben Healy’s man-of-the-match performance in the No 10 jersey, which will be another driver behind his keenness to get out on the pitch and performing close to his best as soon as possible.
“I thought he was really good at the weekend,” he said. “That was his first start and he was ripping spirals into touch. So, he looked very comfortable there which is great to see from a young 10.
“It would have been easy for him to come in and potentially go into his shell, but I thought at the weekend he had a great variety of kicks; spirals, up and under, he got a 50:22, his restarts were great and he also did well with the ball in hand in tough conditions.
“People watching the game probably didn’t appreciate how tough it was with those greasy conditions and Ben still had a lovely touch.
“He’s keen to learn which is good. I worked with him a little bit last week and we’ll do more this week. Although we’re in the same position I’ve obviously got a lot more experience so I’m trying to help out as much as I can with him and Adam Hastings.
“But Ben has settled really well, he gets on well with the boys and moving to Edinburgh should make it even easier as he’ll have teammates that he’ll know. He’s very much at home now as he’s moved over.
“Unfortunately for me it makes it a bit tougher! But it’s good fun and having that challenge is what we all want in rugby. You want to be getting pushed by other players so it’s good to have more competition in camp.”