Friday 14 December 2018

Enigmatic Russell out to ruin dream

Racing-bound out-half key to Scottish hopes of ending Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions

Scotland’s mercurial No 10 Finn Russell will be pulling the strings for Racing 92 next season. Photo: Getty Images
Scotland’s mercurial No 10 Finn Russell will be pulling the strings for Racing 92 next season. Photo: Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Perhaps Paul O'Connell best summed up Scotland's enigmatic out-half earlier this week, when he said: "They (Ireland) know how good Finn Russell is as a player - how good he can be I suppose, if you let him be good."

Last season, Ireland were guilty of giving Russell an armchair ride in Murrayfield and they paid the ultimate price. Simply put: If Russell plays well, inevitably, so too do Scotland.

To understand the 25-year-old's mercurial style of play, it's important to go back to 2013, when he spent 15 weeks playing in New Zealand.

Based on the South Island, Russell was exposed to a whole new way of playing the game. Hovering in and around the Crusaders set-up in Christchurch, he got a first-hand view of how Dan Carter went about his business.

Reputation

It was there that Scotland winger Sean Maitland first came across Russell, and it was clear that his reputation was already growing.

"I first met Finn when I was with the Crusaders and saw him bopping around the gym as an 18- or 19-year-old," Maitland recalled. "I could see what he could do and heard around about what he was doing in club rugby over there (Scotland).

"And then coming over to Glasgow, it is great to see how each year he has taken his game to the next level.

"Obviously, he was under the pump a bit from everyone in the first two games, but he stepped up and deservedly got man of the match against England."

The world often works in mysterious ways, and now, five years later, Russell is preparing to replace the man who he studied closely back in his Christchurch days.

Stepping into the shoes of arguably the greatest out-half to ever play the game is a daunting enough prospect for any player, but many believe that Russell has the temperament to thrive with Racing next season, after Carter heads for Japan.

Russell will pull the strings in a back-line that will include Simon Zebo, and guide a forward pack led by Donnacha Ryan.

His eye-watering salary, which is believed to be worth just shy of €800,000 per season, is an extraordinary amount of money to pay for any player, let alone one who is prone to as many off-days as Russell is.

There have already been suggestions that he has lined himself up to buy a Lamborghini as soon as he touches down in Paris. That was put to Russell on the Rugby Pod last week, and he said: "I haven't decided on the colour yet! There's a few rumours I'll have to wait and see what the weather is like and what kind of car I want - soft top or hard top."

The likelihood is that Russell was indeed joking, but given his flamboyant nature, it would hardly come as a surprise, if, come next season, he is cruising down the Champs-élysées in a white Lambo, with Zebo in the front seat.

It said a lot about how highly Gregor Townsend regards Russell, that he kept faith in him after his dismal display in Cardiff during Scotland's Six Nations opener.

It's often said that Townsend sees a lot of himself in how his first-choice No 10 plays the game, but nevertheless, it took courage to ignore the calls for Russell to be dropped for the following game against France.

He repaid that trust in the win over the French, and backed it up against England in what was an excellent performance, that was typified by his stunning, looping pass out wide for Huw Jones that eventually led to Maitland scoring in the corner.

"I saw the space and chucked the pass," he explained, modestly. "Because I play so much with Huw, he knows it's going to come. You throw it nine times out of 10 in training so it's just the same again."

It was a world-class moment from a player who is more than capable of producing them. It even prompted Scottish legend Gavin Hastings to suggest this week that Russell is a better passer than Johnny Sexton.

That pass in itself was a mini victory for Townsend and how he wants his team to play.

That direction comes from Russell, who fully understands how his coach operates.

The pair's relationship goes back a long way. It was Townsend who gave Russell his first break in professional rugby, when he brought him into the Glasgow set-up in 2012.

Russell later expertly steered Glasgow to the PRO12 title, when Townsend's men saw off Munster in the final three years ago, and now back on Irish soil, he is out to end Ireland's Grand Slam dream.

For all of the 35 caps that he has won though, Russell has never played Ireland over here. It is interesting to note that Scotland have opted not to hold their captain's run at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, but rather in Murrayfield tomorrow.

That leaves little time for Russell to get his bearings in what will be a new stadium for him which for an out-half is hardly ideal.

Given how narrow Ireland have been in defence throughout the Six Nations, Russell will be expected to exploit that to full effect.

"Out wide, I think Finn Russell was back to pulling the strings, as we know he is capable of," Joe Schmidt warned.

"His pass out to Huw Jones at one stage was spectacular. They are such a threatening team, when you think there is nothing on, they conjure something up and that's a real danger for us."

It all, however, goes back to O'Connell's simple, but accurate analysis of Russell.

Ireland made the mistake of allowing him to "be good" last year.

It's difficult to imagine them allowing the same to happen again on Saturday.

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