How Finn Russell ranks with his Scotland predecessors and why power is just as important as precision

Finn Russell of Bath Rugby takes a selfie with fans following the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match against Newcastle Falcons.Finn Russell of Bath Rugby takes a selfie with fans following the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match against Newcastle Falcons.
Finn Russell of Bath Rugby takes a selfie with fans following the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match against Newcastle Falcons.
It is difficult to choose between the three stand-out Scotland 10s

Rugby has changed so much over the years that comparing players of one generation to another is an exercise in fantasy. I suppose this is true of other sports, too. How, for instance, would Don Bradman (Test match batting average 99.94) have fared in the game today when more balls from fast bowlers are less likely to hit the wicket than the batsman’s head?

Back on the ever-memorable Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971, Barry John, among the greatest of all fly-halves, reputedly told his forwards: “I don’t tackle – that’s your job.” He put it a bit bluntly but not many fly-halves were noted tacklers then. Scotland’s Ian Robertson was once told by his captain – Jim Telfer – “if you can’t (expletive deleted) tackle, you might at least get in the way and slow them down ...”

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Often in the amateur days, fly-halves were rarely expected to engage in the heavy stuff, though they would regularly be expected to make cover tackles, often try-saving ones. Johnny Wilkinson was perhaps the first No 10 who gave the impression that he really loved tackling.

Gregor Townsend in action during a match in 1994.Gregor Townsend in action during a match in 1994.
Gregor Townsend in action during a match in 1994.

The news that Finn Russell is now fit and was back in the Bath team for last night’s Premiership clash against Newcastle has had me reflecting that, for a light-framed 10, he does his fair share of tackling, even if he’s unlikely to engage in Wilkinson-style crash tackles. Though I have one very knowledgeable friend who still shakes his head and says he’s not convinced, I suppose few of us share his doubts. A bit of a daft laddie with flashes of genius in his youth, Russell is now in his maturity.

But how does he rank with his Scotland predecessors? I’ve seen a good many decent ones. Early memories of, for instance Angus Cameron, was that he was a fairly bright star at a time when Scotland scarcely starved. Gordon Waddell (1957-62) was a fine, cool-headed player, rarely ruffled, unfortunate to be playing when the Laws might have been framed to discourage running rugby.

Then in the Sixties there was Melrose’s Davie Chisholm who, with his club partner Eck Hastie, achieved a rare run of, I think, ten undefeated matches, though not consecutive ones on account of the vagaries of selectors. There was Gala’s Jock Turner, though he played his best rugby in the centre, and Craig Chalmers, fly-half of the 1990 Grand Slam, a fine player till he bulked up to meet the (supposed) demands of the professional game and lost speed.

All good players and there have been others this century. Still, when one comes down to it, charged with selecting that favourite imaginary all-time Scotland team, there are only two candidates besides Finn: John Rutherford and Gregor Townsend. To be honest, there’s little to choose between them.

Rutherford, fast and a beautifully balanced runner, was, to my mind, the complete fly-half in the last 15 or so years of the amateur game. Principally a daring runner in his youth, he became a master of tactical kicking, never more evidently so than in the Calcutta Cup match of the 1984 Grand Slam year; that day he tormented the English defence to establish a moral supremacy. He scored lots of tries, made others and dropped seven goals for Scotland. He destroyed England again the next time they came to Murrayfield and was a joy to watch in his time.

Townsend was simply brilliant, if sometimes infuriating, from the moment he came on the scene at the age of 18. Gifted and with a keen brain and remarkable acceleration, he made more interception tries than any other fly-half I have seen. He kicked well, though not perhaps as demoralisingly as Rutherford, and, though seen rightly as a running fly-half, was equally capable of playing a canny kicking game as he did notably for the Lions in South Africa in 1997. In 1999 when Scotland won the last Five Nations title he scored in every match. Injuries took their toll, blunting Townsend’s speed of foot if not of mind, and he was out of the game too soon, when not yet 30. Like Rutherford, he has an eye for the drop goal too.

Times change and the game Russell plays is different, more power-orientated than ever before. But he has adapted to that, becoming a tactical general as well as a flair player. Not, I think, as fast as either Rutherford or Townsend, but he has become the wiliest of 10s, one who can achieve more in a congested space than anyone I can think of.

I wouldn’t pick the best of the three, preferring to echo the old St Andrews caddie who, asked to choose the better of two champions, said only: “They baith played perfect gowf.”



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