FINN Russell admits that he took little more than a passing interest in the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The 18-year-old had rather more pressing matters to occupy his mind – such as juggling the responsibilities of his day job as an apprentice stonemason working for Tradstocks in Thornhill, with the demands of training and playing for Falkirk in the second tier of Scottish club rugby.
Russell had spent the previous season operating at 2nd XV level for Stirling County and had moved to Falkirk in an effort to get exposure to first-team rugby. Coach Bob Wylie had promised him that he would have only one year at the club before moving on to bigger and better things, but at that stage not even Nostradamus on his most imaginative of days could have foreseen the youngster being the man in possession of the Scottish No 10 jersey by the time the 2015 tournament rolled around.
“I didn’t really watch the  World Cup, to be honest, because the timings were all different and I was up and away to work when the games were on. I remember reading about it in the paper, but that was about it,” said Russell.
“I was looking at it thinking: ‘I’d love to do that.’ But I guess you are almost accepting that you are a third-year apprentice stonemason and going to play at Falkirk to just enjoy your rugby. So you are keeping an eye on it and thinking how great it would be to be part of something like that, but, in real life, everything revolves around working from half eight to four every day, then fitting rugby in around that.”
“I was 18, just turning 19, so it isn’t that long ago, but it seems like a lifetime.”
Russell’s decision to go to Falkirk certainly paid off. He made the Scotland under-20 team that season, and was offered an apprentice contract by Glasgow Warriors at the end of the campaign. The following season he played his club rugby with Ayr as they marched to the Premier Division title, and made his competitive debut for the Warriors off the bench in a 36-20 win away to Treviso in February 2012, while senior stand-offs Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir were away representing Scotland in a Six Nations victory over Italy.
I was looking at the World Cup in 2011 and thinking: ‘I’d love to do thatFinn Russell
Russell’s remarkably swift and much-publicised ascent to the summit of Scottish rugby was now under way. During the summer of 2013 he spent 15 weeks in New Zealand’s South Island, playing for local clubs in the Christchurch area, and benefiting from the state-of-the-art facilities and specialist coaching offered by the Canterbury Rugby Football Union international high performance unit – and when he returned to Scotland he was ready to stake his claim for regular game time with the Warriors.
He made his first start for the club at inside centre in late November. It was a demoralising 23-8 home defeat to Newport Gwent Dragons, but Russell showed enough chutzpah that day to persuade head coach Gregor Townsend that he should be kept involved, and by the end of the campaign he had established himself as the team’s chief playmaker – wearing the No 10 jersey in both their play-off semi-final victory over Munster and their Grand Final defeat to Leinster.
International recognition was quick to follow, with his first cap being gained against the USA during last summer’s tour. He played all three of Scotland’s 2014 Autumn Tests, and four out of five of their RBS Six Nations matches (missing the Italy game after being rather harshly banned for two weeks because of mid-air collision against Dan Biggar during the national team’s defeat to Wales).
Within the space of 12 short months, the wheel has turned full circle – it is now Jackson and Weir’s task to push their way back ahead of Russell in the international pecking order. They are going to have their work cut out because the man in possession has shown nerves of steel and an icy resolve during his short time at the top.
“There’s also Horney [Peter Horne] and Tonksy [Greig Tonks], so there’s almost five guys pushing for one position. The competition is right up there and it gets the best out of everyone,” is Russell’s diplomatic analysis of the situation.
“I guess the jersey was mine in the Six Nations, but it’s the World Cup now and a different competition. It’s almost back to a blank slate and everyone’s gunning for it. You’ve just got to go out and train as well as you can. The best man will get the jersey, so we’ll wait and see what happens. Everyone is going to get a chance in the warm-up games to show what they can do, so everyone has got to back themselves.”
While Russell’s experiences at international level these last 12 months will be important in his battle for a starting berth during the World Cup, it is likely that the lessons learned during Glasgow’s march to Guinness Pro 12 glory last season will be of even more significance.
“From a year ago to now at Glasgow we seemed to work out a way to grind out wins when thing haven’t necessarily gone our way,” he added.
“I’m looking for me and some of the other Glasgow boys to bring that into this Scotland team.”
The players are taking a well-earned break next week. When they return to camp, they will be straight into preparation for the first of their four warm-up matches, away to Ireland on 15 August.
They then play Italy home and away, followed by France away, during the subsequent three weeks.
The final 31-man squad for the World Cup must be announced by 31 August [before the France game] – and they play their first match of the tournament against Japan at Kingsholm in Gloucester on 23 September.