ONE year on from his last cap – and with a lot of water having passed under the bridge – Finn Russell burst back onto the international scene on Friday night with a bang. It would be stretching it to call his 25-minute cameo against Georgia a game-changing contribution as Scotland were already well in control when he took the field, but his arrival certainly brought an invigorating edge to the home team’s attack.
Within seconds of taking the field, he was spraying out a series of flat miss-one and miss-two passes which floated tantalisingly beyond the reach of grasping Georgian fingertips to open up space for Scotland’s players in the wide channels.
With Russell, you always feel that he is one minor miscalculation away from disaster, but he gets it spectacularly right far more than he gets it damagingly wrong, and the point of difference he offers is going to be key if Scotland are to be anything more than plucky competitors at the top level.
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“I said to them at half-time that we can get them out wide,” said Russell at the conclusion of a game which marked not only the occasion of his 50th cap, but also his first (we hope) in a new era of mutual trust and respect between the player and head coach Gregor Townsend. “I think when I came on the game was slightly more open and it was good to get the two quick passes and use the width, because that was what was on, and it worked out.
“That is the way I play,” he added, when asked about the massive grin which stretched across his face throughout his time on the park. “I’m always smiling, always enjoy being out there. Even if it wasn’t my 50th cap, or my first game back after the World Cup, you’d see the same smile.”
It demonstrated Russell’s remarkable self-assurance that he was straight into the groove with those high-risk passes just six days after his European Champions Cup Final appearance for Racing 92, when he was heavily criticised for giving away a costly interception which arguably swung the game irrevocably in Exeter Chiefs’ favour.
Another conspicuous aspect of Russell’s performance on Friday night was his organisational work, with both his hands and his mouth working overtime with instructions to team-mates between each phase of play. This clarity of thought in what he wants to do is perhaps the feature which has really taken his game to the next level during the last 12 months. He has embraced the freedom he has been granted at Racing 92 to play what he sees, and he is clearly keen to transfer that into his international performances.
“With my kicking game, passing game, and things like that, I think I’m still at the same level – but, personally, I think there is a bit more accuracy, and maybe knowing when I want to run or kick a bit more, and knowing what works,” he said.
“Getting the ball wide to the danger men, that works – even at international level, it still works,” he added. “It’s not something I have focused on, or worked hard on, it is just how I am playing.”
Lessons have clearly been learned by both parties, and bridges built, since that very public spat between Russell and Townsend back in January. For his part, the coach has been keen in recent weeks to press the point that a player of Russell’s vision, bravery and ability has to be afforded the freedom to back himself, while the player is clearly keen to show that he understands he is part of a wider team effort.
“I came in [this week] and just took a step back,” said the 28-year-old. “I didn’t want to come in and say ‘let’s do this or do that’. Hasto [Adam Hastings] was starting so I had a chat with him about what I was thinking going into the game or things he could potentially look for, but it wasn’t me that was driving the game so I didn’t say too much or get too involved.
“I just chatted with the subs about what we might do and how the game-plan might change [later in the match]. I was more focused on making sure the subs were ready. I left the other stuff to the guys who were starting.
“I’m not going out there to say ‘it is me against Hasto,” he added. “It is a team game and I’m going to support him as much if he’s starting, or at 12, or on the bench, whatever it is. I’m going to help him as much as possible, no matter what, as I would do for anyone in the team.
“Personally, I wasn’t trying to show anything or do too much. I just went out there and played my game. It is not for me to decide who plays 10 or 12 or who is in the 23. I just went out there and had some fun, that’s why you saw me smiling.”
On Friday, Hastings moved to outside centre to take over from James Lang, who had a dead-leg, and Russell slotted in at stand-off. On several occasions, the pair combined to good effect, and Russell agreed with Townsend’s post-match comments a few moments earlier that is is a an option which might be worth revisiting.
“Usually I would slide into 12 and he would be at 10, but it was good,” he said. “I like playing with Hasto and I feel having two 10s on the field could be a very good attack; it changes the pictures a lot for the opposition. It was good for me knowing if I give him the ball, he’s got great passing, he can kick and he is another threat out there, another 10, so it was good fun having him there.”
Next stop is Llanelli next Saturday, with Scotland looking to finally bring the curtain down on their 2020 Six Nations campaign in style with a first win in Wales since 2002.
With Russell in exile, Hastings was set to start this game when it was initially scheduled back in March, and Townsend will have to weigh up this week whether to stick with the player who did a good job in difficult circumstances during the first four rounds of the Six Nations in the No10 slot, or whether to treat the game as a fresh start and pick one of the most dangerous creators in world rugby at the moment.
If Russell does get the nod, then he will undoubtedly tackle the challenge head-on – but stresses that he will be equally focussed if he continues as a bench option.
“It will be a different challenge again,” acknowledged Russell. “The forwards will have to front-up, obviously, and our defence will need to be slightly different and better.
“Wales will pose different threats in defence but different opportunities for us to score against. I have played against them a few times and they are a tough defence to break down. So, I will get stuck into that on Monday.
“It will be different for both teams [playing behind closed doors at the Parc y Scarlets instead of in front of a full-house at the Principality Stadium]. Obviously, it is a Six Nations game so there is something to play for and getting a few points could change the position in the standings. I think next week will be a different energy, a different mentality, going into the game.”