Finn Russell was messing about with a rugby ball in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel one morning, faking a pass as someone walked past only to fool them by holding on to the ball.
It was utterly inconsequential, the sort of stuff that happens a hundred times a day when rugby players are gathered together, only this little cameo took place just hours ahead of Russell’s international debut against the Eagles, which suggests that the stand-off’s sang is a lot more froid than most.
A few months ago, towards the end of Glasgow’s season, Gregor Townsend was asked if it wasn’t, perhaps, a bit of a risk handing Russell the No 10 jersey ahead of such an important must-win league match against Ulster. Townsend never makes much of an effort to hide his impatience and he huffed and puffed while dismissing the question out of hand without so much as casting a glance at his interrogator. It was, he made it clear, an obsolete question. However inexperienced the player may be, there is no attendant risk when they come with the sort of cool and calm demeanour that Russell quite obviously possesses.
So how did Russell feel ahead of his Scotland debut in Houston? “I sort of see every game as the same so I tried to make sure the circumstances of the game did not get to me,” said the 21-year-old. “I’m quite relaxed before a game and, when I’m in a game, I try not to get wrapped up in the moment. I felt I did that quite well, considering it was my first cap. I try to treat every game the same no matter who you are playing against.
“The games against Munster and Leinster [in the RaboDirect] were as high a level as I had played. A Test match is obviously there as well, so it was quite intense but, after playing against Munster and Leinster, I kind of had a feel for it. I just tried to keep chilled and not think about it. I just did whatever I felt like. I try to do that so I feel good going into a game. Having a coffee with the family was a good way of taking my mind off it. It was about killing the time, not counting it down, so I wasn’t sitting around waiting and thinking about it. I just wanted to keep it out of my mind and stay relaxed.”
Russell’s family made the trip to North America to support him. They hail from Stirling and he came through the County youth system and played second XV rugby in partnership with Canada’s Scottish scrum-half Gordon McRorie. The pair are good mates and Russell has been trying to track down his former half-back partner to swap stories and banter before the action starts on Saturday.
Russell spent a year at Falkirk and played a couple of games for Ayr this season just finished after starting back in September as Glasgow’s fourth-choice playmaker behind Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Weir and Scott Wight. He is now odds on to start against Canada on Saturday simply because he has composure on the ball. He always looks in control of events, even when they don’t always go according to plan.
Russell had a highly effective debut in Houston. He whizzed one bullet that by-passed not one but both centres and fell straight into Tim Visser’s arms ten metres from the Eagles’ line where the big Dutchman should have done better. When the US were just metres from their line in the second 40, Russell sprinted up in defence to catch Chris Wyles with the ball and win a five-metre scrum (which Scotland lost). He defends exceptionally well for one so slight.
He was not perfect, though, and, heaven knows, he is due a bad game at some stage of his young career. Last Saturday he missed touch with one penalty and dropped one pass to end the game but, overall, the ledger was easily in credit. How did he assess his own performance?
“I think it went pretty well,” said Russell with no false modesty. “It was a good run for the boys. There is still a lot for me to work on and we will hopefully be fixing that up this week. It was a decent performance, I’d say. Not my best and a lot to work on. It is almost quite good to know there are things to work on. You always have the capacity to get better.”
That will be music to ears of Scotland fans the world over. Russell will almost certainly start against Canada but, just as Townsend’s introduced him gradually into the Glasgow team, so the Scottish management are taking his development in bite-sized chunks.
Argentina and South Africa were deemed a step to far at this nascent stage of his career but only a fool would bet against Russell being in the starting XV when next year’s World Cup kicks off.