FINN Russell once looked up to Australia’s star players as idols – but now he believes he and his Scotland team-mates can claim to be every bit as good as the stellar Wallabies.
The Glasgow stand-off was a member of a Dark Blues line-up which came within 30 seconds of producing an incredible victory over Michael Cheika’s men at Twickenham on Sunday.
But the World Cup semi-final slot was stolen away from them after referee Craig Joubert’s controversial last-gasp offside call handed Bernard Foley the winning kick.
Russell, though, is not limping out of the tournament with his head bowed following the thrilling 35-34 defeat.
Instead, he believes a side which lost all five of this year’s RBS 6 Nations fixtures have shown they can now hold their own against the best in the world.
He said: “I remember back in the day when I was younger I would be looking up at guys like Matt Giteau and Will Genia and thinking how great they were.
“But (on Sunday) we showed we were as good as them, if not better for spells of the match. We’re a completely different team from the Six Nations – we’re on par with the best teams in the world.”
The Scots could not have asked for a worst start to 2015, but their brave display during a thrill-a-minute encounter with the Australians highlights the massive improvements Kiwi coach Vern Cotter has made. They looked on course for victory after centre Mark Bennett stormed under the posts with just seven minutes left.
But the biggest result in the history of Scottish rugby was ripped from their grasp in the final moments when Joubert wrongly penalised Jon Welsh for offside after the ball had been batted backwards by Australia substitute Nick Phipps.
“I don’t know what to say about the decision,” Russell said. “It’s disappointing for us. It maybe should have been a scrum which could have changed the game.
“But they got the penalty and Foley kicked it well. What can we do after that?”
Russell believes the team can now march into next year’s Six Nations as genuine contenders after coming so close to toppling one of the game’s superpowers.
He said: “When Mark scored, the boys thought we were nearly there. We just had to get the restart and exit and we’d be safe.
“The rain was coming down and that meant they would not have been able to throw it wide, which had been a dangerous tactic for them.
“But Kurtley Beale put a good kick in and, although we then had the line-out that followed, we couldn’t see it out.
“It was a real Scottish way of losing. We were so close but didn’t get the win. But the way we performed during the tournament is the way we want Scottish teams to perform.
“We were up against a quality side like Australia and I’d say we deserved the win. We were outstanding. Although we’re disappointed now, we can hold our heads high.
“But when it comes to next year’s Six Nations, I think it will be a different story. We will believe in ourselves now. It’s not just about getting close to the best sides, we will want to beat them.
“We showed we can live with the best. For us to go and compete against a top-five side like Australia and only miss out because one decision went against us gives us a lot of confidence.”
Sunday’s display by the 23-year-old capped off Russell’s meteoric rise through the Scottish rugby ranks. It is only two years since he was playing club rugby with Ayr in front of a couple of hundred fans, but his inventive style of play has become central to Cotter’s game-plan. However, the stand-off is not ready to rest on his laurels just yet.
“It was slightly different, I guess,” he said after being asked about walking out in front of Sunday’s 75,000-strong crowd. “It’s not like playing at Millbrae (home of Ayr) or Falkirk. Everything is still new for me. I only got capped last summer so I’m still just trying to take everything in.
“But I want to use these feelings right now and use them to help me improve.”