How Finn Russell justified £1m salary, silenced English critics and debunked the lazy narrative - Fraser Brown

Trophy would cap hugely impressive first season at Bath

Finn Russell arrived at Bath last summer with a massive price tag. He signed from Racing 92 in a deal worth a reported £1 million per year and it would be fair to say there was a bit of scepticism from the English media.

There have been big money contracts before, of course. Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Charles Piutau, Semi Radradra are all rumoured to have been on or around the £1m mark, but at a time when the league in England was struggling, Wasps, Worcester and London Irish were going out of business, almost every club in the league was reporting significant losses and a there was a major reduction in the salary cap, most teams seemed to be tightening their belts. Then, all of a sudden, Bath splash out £1m a year on Finn.

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I think sometimes there can be a blinkered view down south that unless you’ve done it in the Premiership then you are not valued. So although Finn had been brilliant in France - and for Scotland - the fact that he hadn’t played in England meant some pundits remained unconvinced that he represented value for money for Bath.

Finn Russell of Bath offloads during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby play-off semi-final against Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)Finn Russell of Bath offloads during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby play-off semi-final against Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Finn Russell of Bath offloads during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby play-off semi-final against Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There was still this lazy narrative that he was a bit of a maverick and not the sort of player to lead you to a league title. He was the kind of stand-off who would win you games but also lose you them, the doubters said.

And when he tried a cross-field kick on his own 10-metre line during the derby against Bristol in January which led to a try for the opposition, it added fuel to the critics’ ire.

Fast forward four months and Bath are in the Premiership final against Northampton at Twickenham this Saturday and Finn is being talked about as the most complete 10 in the league. The turnaround in the perception of Finn is on a par with the turnaround in Bath’s fortunes and, of course, the two are inextricably linked.

I expected Finn to have the impact at Bath that he has in terms of how they’re playing because he has this priceless ability to give his team-mates freedom to play. Alongside Ben Spencer, the Bath captain, the pair of them have created an unbelievable partnership at nine and 10.

I think the other 13 players in that Bath team back their halfbacks to lead them to victory almost every single week, and even when it goes wrong they will back Spencer and Russell to get them there the following week.

In the semi-final win over Sale, Finn had a couple of stand-out moments but, as Ben Spencer said after the game, the thing a lot of people don’t understand about Finn is how good his defence is. Not just in how he scrambles and the hits that he puts in, but how hard he works. Now, those who have played with him for Scotland have known this for ages but I think they are just waking up to this in England.

Johann van Graan, Bath’s director of rugby, said after the match that his No 10 did exactly what he needed him to do. He kicked his goals, he created a few opportunities and brought other people into the game.

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So even when he’s not having the most Finn Russell-esque game, he can still be the mature playmaker who brings others into the contest. His ability, calmness and willingness to take risks removes the shackles from his team-mates and I think that’s been a huge part of Bath’s success this season. If your star player is unaffected by any mistake he might make then it allows others to play with freedom.

Van Graan deserves credit because, let’s be honest, when he took over at Bath the first six or seven months weren’t great. It wasn’t like he came in and they started being a brilliant team overnight. They sneaked into Champions Cup qualification in the last game of his first season in charge. His time at Munster had been OK but nothing special and they didn’t put up too much of a fight when he decided to leave. It would have been easy to be underwhelmed by his appointment and what he did in the first six months, and many were, but what he’s done since, especially this season, is highly impressive.

He’s very analytical. He didn’t make wholesale changes at the beginning. He sat back and he watched. He wanted to find out about people and the club and then when it got to around Christmas time he started making changes, with signings and appointments to his backroom staff.

Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, is not known for his patience but van Graan was given time to get his feet under the table and implement some changes, and it’s been building over the last two years.

It was interesting that van Graan took time out to praise Finn after the game on Saturday for the way he had overcome the groin injury which forced off against Exeter in the Champions Cup in April. It was described at the time as “a significant injury” and there was that lingering fear that it might rule him out for the season. But Finn worked incredibly hard with the medics and the S&C staff to get back and that’s a side of Finn that’s always been there but maybe not so well known.

He is portrayed as this maverick who does things off the cuff and plays in a very instinctive way but you don’t get to where Finn is if you don’t have a) the ability and b) the diligence and work ethic to make the most of your talents, and that’s not just on the pitch. He says himself that he’s not the biggest fan of the weights room but he has transformed that side of his game over the last few years. He’s always been a hard worker.

Nothing much phases Finn and he certainly won’t be daunted by the prospect of playing at Twickenham. He’s won there twice with Scotland, in 2021 and 2023, and inspired the comeback in the 38-38 draw in 2019. He’s also won there with the Barbarians, so some of his best performances have come at Twickenham.

In 2021 a lot of it came down to how well he controlled the game. Two years later, he was good without being spectacular but he still stepped up in the big pressure moments, like at Duhan van der Merwe’s second try. He was in the right place at the right time to execute the perfect passes and that’s something that he’s developed over the last few years - that confidence to be the pivot at the right time rather than trying to do too much on the ball.

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Bath haven’t been English champions since 1996 so Saturday is a huge day for the club. They really need to win this weekend and so does Finn.

If he wants to be remembered as the great player he is he needs more winners’ medals. He’s got one, from his time at Glasgow Warriors, but probably the biggest disappointment from his time in France is that Racing never won anything. They had so much talent but they fell short and the criticism has been levelled at Finn that he was the leader of that team for five seasons but never guided them to silverware.

I believe he is one of the best 10s of the professional era but he needs to win more silverware.

He’ll be up against Fin Smith at Twickenham and he’s been brilliant this season for Northampton. He seems so calm and composed for a young fly-half. I think it’ll be a tight game and the last 15-20 minutes could be key. I think the experience of Russell might just be the difference but so much will depend on how the other players around the fly-halves play.

They’ll need a platform from the forwards and the two nines will also be hugely important. Alex Mitchell has been brilliant for Northampton but, for me, Spencer is the best scrum-half in England and I don’t understand why he doesn’t start for the national side.

I actually think that the battle between the nines could be more important than the one between the 10s because whichever scrum-half plays better will allow one of the Fin(n)s to have a more influential game.

I think it will be about which playmaker can pull the best performance out of his team rather than Finn or Fin doing something flashy and spectacular.

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