THE sight of Finn Russell limping off at Elland Road two Sundays ago was an image to send a shudder down the spine of every Scotland supporter, and no doubt caused a few flurries among the coaching staff too.
In the 15 months since Russell won his first cap against the USA in Houston, the young Glasgow stand-off has become the national team’s pivotal figure. A general feeling is that, under Vern Cotter, Scotland are a team who can now live with the bigger teams, but with Russell at stand-off they can actually hurt them.
The calmest person in Leeds at the moment when he hobbled off during the second half of the Pool B clash against the USA was Russell himself.
“After the Six Nations, when I was back at Glasgow, I kinda rolled my ankle so knew what to expect,” said the 23-year-old yesterday after he was named in the team to face Samoa at St James’ Park tomorrow.
“It was two weeks [to recover] then so I knew it would be about the same timespan. I had a rough idea of how long it would be.”
At no point did Russell think that his tournament was over. “No. At the time it happened we got a scan quite quickly and saw what happened,” he explained.
“We had a rough idea and got reassured at the time by the physios and the doc. The injury was a tweak of the ligaments and nothing too major.
“I had done it before in my left ankle with Glasgow so I knew what it was. It was sore but it died down quite quickly.”
Warriors team-mate Duncan Weir is a steady and very able deputy and put in an admirable shift against the South Africans in Newcastle last weekend, but Russell brings the kind of X-factor that is impossible to replicate when he is not there and his swift return is a major boost ahead of tomorrow’s match, in which a win will secure a quarter-final place.
That meteoric rise from first cap to key man in not much more than a year is certainly not lost on Russell.
“I made my debut 15 months ago but it seems like a lot longer,” he said. “There has been so much happening with me this year: we won the league with Glasgow, I played in the autumn Tests and the Six Nations and now we’ve had the build-up to the World Cup.
“Last summer now looks a long, long time away due to there being so much build-up to this World Cup. I look back to 15 months ago when I won my first cap and so much has happened.”
Rather than knock him off his stride, however, the blur of activity has only further fuelled Russell’s crackling and infectious positivity and he is not fazed by the burden of being viewed as Scotland’s No 1 playmaker. He added: “I’m trying to enjoy it as much as possible, I’ve always got a smile on my face and even when I’m injured and on crutches I’m still smiling.
“It’s not often you get the chance to play at a World Cup and I’m lucky to be doing that now at the age of just 23. Who knows if you’ll get the chance to play at another one so I’m just trying to enjoy every minute of it.”
You sense tomorrow is just the type of match that gets Russell’s blood pumping, but he says it’s all about striking a balance between the enormity of the occasion and the basics which draw him back to the modest roots from which he sprang.
“Every game is like that,” he explained. “It is a great opportunity to get out there on the main stage at the World Cup, the biggest tournament. For me, though, it is just another game. It is no different to playing for Glasgow, Ayr or Falkirk. Although it is a big game it is just 80 minutes, 15 on 15. That is the way we are looking at it.”
Samoa may be out of the tournament but the Scots are prepared for a ferocious start by a team hurting from their loss to Japan, and sense that could even create chances.
“If Samoa do fly out of the line, then it will create opportunities as it creates a kind of dogleg which we will able to counteract and get in behind them,” said Russell.
“At the same time, it will mean our skills and execution will need to be as good as it can be.
“The boys need to be geared up for big hits and, depending on how we want to play the game, we can adapt throughout the game and chop and change as we see fit.
“It’s just a part of sport, there is always pressure but our boys should be used to that.
“Everyone has played at a high enough level and we have had pressure like this before.
“We all know what we need to do. We need to trust in that and do our job and hopefully that will take care of it.”