Finn Russell: If I’m mentally fresh and ready for Scotland, I’ll have a better game

No player is more important to Scotland’s World Cup hopes than Finn Russell, who has declared himself fit and raring to go for the tournament in France next month.

As the team’s playmaker and orchestrator-in-chief, clarity of thinking is key to delivering his best and the stand-off feels that wasn’t the case a couple of seasons ago when he went from the Lions tour straight into the French league season with Racing 92. Russell felt mentally and physically exhausted, fatigued by the lack of time off. Happily, last season was better. He got a decent close season break and feels all the better for it.

“If I’m mentally fresh and ready I’ll have a better game,” Russell said. “As a 10 you’ve got to think your way through it and plan your way through the game but if you’re physically not there you can’t be quite where you want to be and you’re slow and sluggish. It goes hand in hand, I think. But now I’m feeling fit and mentally, I’m feeling good so I’ve got no excuses now!”

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Scotland have benefited from Russell’s outstanding creativity and vision for almost a decade but he’s no automaton and it’s perhaps unsurprising that things caught up with him. “That year after the Lions tour was tough,” he said. “We’d had a long season, with the Lions on top of it, then I had three weeks off before I was back playing, which obviously wasn’t that long. Even after that, I don’t think I got a week’s holiday until April, after the Six Nations. Normally you get one around November and then at the Six Nations but I just went right through until April so, as demanding as the season before was, to only have three weeks off and then be back playing again was tough, and I think it had a knock-on effect for that whole season and I never really managed to get back into it.“Last summer I got five weeks off, so it was nice to chill out and get some time away from it. And this season as well, I had four weeks at the end of the year which was nice. With five weeks off then three weeks of pre-season it means it’s eight weeks without games whereas after the Lions tour I had three weekends off and then it was back to playing which isn’t that long. It’s more the mental side that tires me. Physically, I wasn’t in my best shape in 21-22 but I think that was more a reflection of where I was. I wasn’t down, I was just tired.”

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell feels much better prepared for the upcoming World Cup.Scotland fly-half Finn Russell feels much better prepared for the upcoming World Cup.
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell feels much better prepared for the upcoming World Cup.

This will be Russell’s third crack at the World Cup and he goes into the tournament as a senior player with recent experience of captaining the side. He was a relative newcomer to the squad in 2015 but played in the pool stage wins over Japan, USA and Samoa to set up a quarter-final clash with Australia at Twickenham. Russell was at 10 as a dubious late refereeing decision cost Scotland victory against the Wallabies. Four years later in Japan and defeats by Ireland and the hosts saw Gregor Townsend’s side eliminated at the pool stage.

“I think it’s different this time,” he said. “Last time there were a lot of older guys than me. I was 26 going into the last World Cup, turning 27, whereas this time I’ll be one of the older guys, one of the most experienced guys. It’s a different responsibility, a different role for me to play at this World Cup, albeit on the pitch it will be the exact same, but off the field I’ve been there, done it before. In the 2015 World Cup we got out the group and we should have beaten Australia in that quarter-final. At the last World Cup we didn't perform at our best and we didn’t get out of the group stage. Having those two experiences will hopefully help me, but also the experience I’ve got will help the boys and help the team.”Russell will turn 31 during the World Cup but has no intention of following his long-time Scotland team-mate Stuart Hogg into retirement. The fly-half will embark on a new chapter after the tournament in France. After five seasons in Paris with Racing, Russell has joined Bath and will play in the English Premiership for the first time. It’s a smaller league and he thinks it will help prolong his career to have fewer games.

“I don’t know how long the English boys are going to get off after the World Cup but the Scottish boys will probably get three or four weeks off. For me at Bath, I don’t how long it’s going to be. Two weeks maybe, I’m not sure. It just depends, coach to coach, but it’s becoming more of a thing, giving boys time off when they need it, and for coaches to understand that players need it, and also when they need it. There’s no point in leaving it too long and then you’ve burnt them out and it’s tough to get them back. You’re better giving them time before you see them burnt out and then they’ll be able to keep going.

“I think in France it’s different. There are 14 teams so there are a lot of [league] games as well as European ones. Going to the Premiership after the World Cup will be different because there are ten teams in it now so that’s eight games fewer. That’ll be different for me and at this stage in my career it’s probably a good thing to have a few less games to play.”