A SHARP reminder of just how young one of Scotland’s brightest rugby stars is, or perhaps more worryingly how old his inquisitor is getting, comes when Finn Russell reveals that Gregor Townsend’s playing days were just a bit before his time.
Not John Rutherford nor Craig Chalmers, but Gregor Townsend for goodness sake. But, as ever, the numbers don’t lie and it is a fact that Russell was only six years old when his mentor was leading the last Scottish backline capable of scoring freely against top-class opposition in that glorious 1999 Five Nations title win.
Townsend famously scored a try in every game of that campaign but any memories of his club coach’s heyday are a bit hazy for the 22-year-old Glasgow and Scotland stand-off. “I’ve got some vague memories of Gregor playing but I don’t know if that is of me watching when I was a young kid or if it’s footage and old videos I’ve seen since,” he says diplomatically. “But I’m well aware of what a world-class stand-off he was in his day and it’s been great to have him there bringing me on.”
Anybody who is “old” enough to remember the heady days of Townsend’s mercurial genius can’t help but feel that, in Russell, Scotland finally have a No 10 with the flair and confidence to orchestrate attacking back play that gets the crowd on their feet. A have-a-go hero to shake off the shackles of a decade and a half in which inhibition has, more or less, reigned supreme.
Russell’s talent remains raw and he is a work in progress but the one-time apprentice stonemason is a piece of rock ripe for crafting.
“I can ask Gregor anything and bounce ideas off him and he’s always great with the advice he gives you,” said Russell at BT Murrayfield this week. “I’ve developed into a similar style of player as he was, more of a running 10. But there’s obviously a lot of the tactical side of things, kicking and decision-making that you need as a foundation. You can’t just be off the cuff all the time and he’s been important in adding these things to my game.”
Russell has come a long way since he felt forced in 2011, around the time of the last World Cup, to move from his hometown Stirling County to second-flight Falkirk to get a shot at first XV club rugby. While it would be a bit harsh on the Bridgehaugh outfit to compare this with the infamous decision of Decca Records to reject The Beatles, it does indicate just how meteoric Russell’s rise has been.
“I wasn’t getting in the first team at Stirling so I decided to make the move to Falkirk, which was a big decision at the time. It’s strange looking back that when the last World Cup was coming up I was just looking to get a game for Falkirk, now I’m hoping to start for Scotland and be in the World Cup squad. Although Falkirk were a league below Stirling it was better playing for them than County 2nds, so it was a good move for me, was a real springboard and that’s where I got spotted by Glasgow.”
There are no hard feelings with County, in fact Russell will be there today watching his brother, Archie, play for them in a pre-season game before heading back to his parents’ home in Bridge of Allan to watch this evening’s opening World Cup warm-up match against Ireland in Dublin. He hasn’t been included in this weekend’s squad but will get his chance in the coming weeks and, although he himself would not be so presumptuous, is surely, barring injury, a shoo-in for Vern Cotter’s final 31-man squad.
“The hard part of pre-season in terms of the fitness work is done and it’s now down to the games,” said Russell. “It’s all going to come around quite quickly now I think. It’s disappointing not to be involved this weekend, I always prefer to play, but we all know we’re going to get a chance at some point over the course of these four games. I’m sure Vern wants to see every boy in action and what they can do so he has all the information he needs for naming the final squad. I’ll be back at my mum and dad’s. We get the weekend off, so I’ll probably watch my brother play, then watch the game after.”
Dad Keith has had a long career in sports administration and is now working for the SRU as director of domestic rugby, while both brothers are also rugby players – Archie represented Scotland in this summer’s Under-20 World Cup and Harry plays for Falkirk. Mum Sally has been a huge source of encouragement and sister Jessie is big brother’s No 1 fan.
“I think I was maybe in Primary Three when I went to a first rugby training session, though I’m sure I’d had a ball in my hands before then,” he said. “We are a sporty family. My dad played a lot of racket sports and we all grew up being exposed to a load of sports – golf, badminton, tennis, all that kind of stuff.”
Russell attended Wallace High in Stirling, the same school as former Scotland star Kenny Logan, and progressed his rugby there. “In fact I played my first game for them when I was still at primary school,” he revealed. “One of their teams was down a few numbers and I ended up getting drafted in to play for the big school. I’ve always liked to play ahead of myself. But it was a good school for rugby. They have a rugby academy based there now. I would play wherever I could get a game but it was always stand-off that was the position I liked the best, always being involved in the thick of things.”
Graduation to the professional game was not to come until he was 20 so other employment avenues had to be sought and, reflecting a character with an appetite for the unexpected, he went down an unusual route.
He explained: “Academic stuff at school wasn’t really my sort of thing so I knew after a few years that I didn’t really want to go to Uni and the right route for me was to do some sort of apprenticeship and get myself a trade.
“A friend of the family had a stonemasonry company, so I asked him if I’d be able to get a job and he said yes and I took the opportunity and did it for three years before I went full-time with Glasgow. I’ve actually still got a year left on the apprenticeship, which is a bit of a niggle after doing the first three. It is something I’d like to go back and finish, so I have the ticket. Having a trade card is always a good thing to have behind you. But, you know, it just depends on what happens with the rugby and whether I get the time to do it or not.”
Back in 2011, as Scotland’s World Cup hopes fizzled, Russell chiselled.
“Yeah when the last World Cup was on I was working away,” he recalled. “I maybe caught a bit of it on TV and read a bit about in the paper during my lunch breaks and stuff but it’s unbelievable how time has flown and how much things can change in just four years.”
The move to Falkirk reaped even greater rewards than Russell could have imagined and within a year he had the chance to make a living from playing rugby.
“At the back-end of the [2011-12] season with Falkirk I signed with Glasgow after being involved with the Scotland U20s that year,” he explained. “My coach at Falkirk, Bob Wylie, had been quite clear with me when I joined them and said ‘right, you’re here for a year then you’re going to have to go to a top division club to progress’. So, when I got the contract, I moved to Ayr for a year then started to get my chance in the Glasgow team the season after.”
Before making that breakthrough into the Warriors team, Russell was the joint recipient of the John Macphail Scholarship with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, one of the other bright young stars in the current firmament of Scottish rugby. It saw the pair travel to train and play in New Zealand, with Russell turning out for Lincoln Univeristy. “It was a great thing for me,” said Russell. “It challenges you in all sorts of ways. You’re away from home, on the other side of the world in fact, and it’s a completely different environment than you’re used to.
“You have to take a lot of responsibility on yourself and it’s really down to you to make the most of the opportunity you’ve been given. It’s brilliant to get to train with all these great players and every week you’ve got boys coming back from the Crusaders’ Super Rugby set-up or the Canterbury province team to play with you and against you, so the standard is really high and you have to adapt to that quickly.
“Just with New Zealand being a country that is steeped in rugby everyone is on the button and knows the game inside out and that culture rubs off on you. As a young guy it was a priceless experience.”
It clearly had the desired effect as Russell kicked on and received his first full Scotland cap within the year – he now has nine to his name – against the United States in Houston on last summer’s tour.
“I got a good run of games in 2013-14 with Glasgow and we had a good season, even though we lost the Pro12 final, but I was lucky enough to be called up by Vern for the summer tour and get my first couple of caps. My mum and dad flew out to see me win my first cap and it was a fantastic experience which really propelled me into the season that’s just gone, which has been incredible – playing for Scotland at BT Murrayfield, experiencing the Six Nations and winning the title with Glasgow and scoring a try in the final. It’s been a dream season.”
Of course, the Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations proved a bit of a downer and Russell suffered the frustration of being banned for the Italy game after the unfortunate challenge, or lack of a challenge, on an airborne Dan Biggar saw a yellow card against Wales upgraded to a red on citation. “It was a bit disappointing but och these things happen and it’s all about how you put it behind you and move on,” is Russell’s take. “There wasn’t much I could do about it, any of it, the incident itself and then what happened afterwards. We gave it a crack in the hearing but they didn’t see it the way we saw it.”
Any bad memories from the Six Nations were blown away by the golden ones of Glasgow’s surge to the Guinness Pro12 title – a first major trophy for a Scottish pro side. It has created a genuine buzz in a city which, following last summer’s Commonwealth Games, is beginning to develop a taste for a sporting landscape unconfined by the intense, and not always pleasant, Old Firm obsession.
“It’s brilliant, things are going in the right direction and it’s great to be a part of,” Russell said of the Warriors surge. “The open-top bus tour with the trophy was incredible, seeing all those people in the city come out for a rugby team was a big thing. They had to put up extra stands at Scotstoun last season and it was still selling out. We’ve got something special building.”
Russell scored the clinching try that night at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium, ghosting through a gap in trademark style, as the Warriors thumped mighty Munster 31-13 in the final, but he is always keen to emphasise the team effort. A bit of gallus swagger is welcome but Russell is also a fully paid-up member of the “collective- above-individual” ethos which has been at the core of Glasgow’s recent rise.
Stand-off is always a high-pressure position, though, and that will certainly be the case in next month’s World Cup should Russell get the nod. It is a heavy burden for young shoulders, but he views himself as being level-headed and thick-skinned. “Yeah, I’m a pretty chilled out person,” said Russell. “I grew up with my brothers and sisters always giving each other some friendly stick so you learn to take it and not get full of yourself. It’s the same with my mates, there’s always banter flying around, having a laugh. When I’m on the golf course I spend the whole time having mates trying to put me off my shots, so taking a pressure goal kick or something like that in a packed stadium is easy in comparison.”
Russell’s coolness in a crisis was perfectly illustrated at the dramatic conclusion of the Pro12 semi-final. Trailing Ulster at home, time was ticking away and Glasgow’s season hung in the balance. A brilliantly accurate long-range pass off his wrong side put DTH van der Merwe in for a match-levelling try before Russell stepped up and calmly knocked over a touchline conversion for the win. “I knew DTH was out there and if I could somehow get it into his hands he would finish it off,” he recalled. “The pass itself I didn’t think too much about. I try not to worry about what could go wrong in those situations and focus on what might go right.”
It is the kind of refreshing attitude Scottish rugby has been crying out for and long may it continue.
• The only chance to watch Scotland play at home before the Rugby World Cup comes when they host Italy at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 29 August, kick-off 3pm. Tickets start at £5 (U18s) £15 (adults) and under-12s go FREE (with a paying adult). There is also a Group Party Pass (seven tickets for the price of eight) available. Go to www.scottishrugby.org/summertest