Finn Russell: from stonemason to bright lights of Paris

Glasgow Warriors' Finn Russell will bid farewell to Scotstoun on Friday. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS/SRUGlasgow Warriors' Finn Russell will bid farewell to Scotstoun on Friday. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS/SRU
Glasgow Warriors' Finn Russell will bid farewell to Scotstoun on Friday. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS/SRU
Scotstoun has enjoyed some roaring Friday night rugby since the Warriors took over the lease six years ago, a move which coincided with the unheralded signing of a skinny kid from Stirling. The raucous Pro14 semi-final against the Scarlets will be the final appearance by Finn Russell at Scotstoun before he joins Racing 92 in the summer. The Warriors have upped the capacity of the ground to 10,000 by extending the north/south stands, and the place will be jumping come Friday evening.

It has been a crazy six years in the life of the stand-off, the sort of story that proves reality is stranger than fiction. From being an apprentice stonemason six years ago, pocketing £300 per week, supplemented by £50 in his hand from Falkirk Rugby Club, Russell is now one of the pre-eminent stand-offs in world rugby and certainly one of the most exciting. The very fact that Racing came calling is testament to that, as are the colossal €600,000 wages that he is said to be earning in Paris.

Back then Russell did what he has since become famous for doing… he took a calculated risk, quitting his post as an apprentice stone-cutter and signing on as an apprentice rugby player on a paltry £10,000 per annum; his parents had to pick up the monthly payments on his car. It is, he says with his habitual lop-sided grin, what families are for and now he is on the cusp of leaving a Glasgow squad that has become a second family to the No 10.

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“Hopefully [there will be] two games left but the semi-final will be my last home game no matter what,” says Russell. “I am looking forward to running out in front of the crowd here at Scotstoun, it should be good fun. It’s a great stadium to play at.

“I keep thinking of the time when I was a stonemason, almost, but that was six years ago. An amazing six years for me and an amazing journey. I have managed to go out and play for Glasgow 80 times and represent Scotland. I have done everything that six years ago I wouldn’t really have thought about. To be able to come here and meet all these new guys six years ago and become best friends, the club is almost like a family. I have had the six most enjoyable years here, it’s been brilliant for me.

“There will be a lot of emotion around it, I am not too fussed by that. I am just going there to do my job and get it done. Emotions are for after the game when it has all sunk in. Like most things it won’t sink in until you’ve had a few days to think about it. I should be alright… I think.”

That last “I think” is what marks Russell apart from the masses; it is honest and he isn’t afraid to admit his vulnerabilities. He understands that moving is a gamble. He talks about needing a new challenge but he is painfully aware that the move to Paris might blow up in his face.

Jonny Sexton joined Racing a few years back and they got their money’s worth, picking the Irishman 13 times in one ten-week period. He couldn’t make it stick and returned to Leinster. Closer to home DTH van der Merwe has returned to the club where he made his name and perhaps the Scotland stand-off has to leave Glasgow all the better to appreciate what he has at home.

“There is maybe a little bit of that I suppose,” Russell concedes, ever thoughtful. “I have been over to Racing a few times and it seems like a great club, a great family club as well.

“Definitely I am always going to miss this club. It was the first club I started off at, the relationships I have built up here are amazing and I am going to miss that. However, I am looking forward to the change and the new challenges, whether that is a different environment with the club, with the city, with not having the same support network as I do over there as I do here. I think it will be quite good for me as well, as an individual, outwith rugby, to go over there and challenge myself.

“I will definitely miss this club and at times I will wish I was back here but, at the same time, I am looking forward to seeing what they’re going to chuck at me over there.”

Can he see himself returning one day?

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“If I don’t learn French, mibbe!” he jokes before adopting his game face. “I don’t know. I’m away for three years in Paris and then I guess I will see what happens after that. A lot of people say the first year is the hardest.

“It was too good an opportunity to turn down then and it is the same with Racing. It’s such an opportunity for me and probably since I started at Glasgow I’ve thought I’d love to play in France at some point.

“And getting my head injury opened my eyes to how quickly our game can be over, so this was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. If I go there and don’t like it then that’s what it is but at least I’ve gone there and tried it, and had that experience and can always look back on it.

“And I’ll still be 28 when I finish up there so still young enough that I can hopefully come back here and get a game.”

First up is the small matter of the Pro14 semi-final against the Scarlets who thumped Glasgow in early April. The forwards were well beaten in the contact zone, a recurring theme for Glasgow, especially in the latter half of the season, and the backs looked toothless.

Russell insists that Friday evening’s match will be a very different game and he is probably right.

For all their woes, Glasgow remain hugely combative in front of their own fans and the plastic pitch helps their high tempo game.

If he is concerned by Glasgow’s ordinary form of late (they have lost three of their last four matches), he hides it pretty well. Instead Russell points to the Scotstoun factor and the fact that when they hit their straps Glasgow can beat anyone, including Aviva leaders Exeter, as they proved in that last European tie.

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“The results haven’t been going our way but we have been playing some good rugby, it’s just the ball hasn’t gone to hand. We have created a lot of chances so we are confident and we back ourselves.

“We have a great home record so we’ll use that, and the crowd here are awesome. We are happy with how we have been tracking along. A semi-final… so it’s knockout rugby now. It doesn’t matter how you’ve played all year, it’s all down to 80 minutes at the weekend.”

Russell’s last 80 minutes at Scotstoun in Glasgow colours? Well, mibbes aye, mibbes naw.