Interview: Finn Russell on Pick 'n' Mix and Miss Scotland

So, here I am at the Scotland rugby squad camp, laughing at Vern Cotter. Well, not actually at him because you don't do that sort of thing, but the spoof Twitter account for the head coach, called Stern Vern Cotter, throws up some gems, such as: 'Just Greeg and I watching #Eng-Wal game in team hotel. Others are playing Call of Duty. Finn's out on the lawn waving at aeroplanes.'

Scotland stand-off Finn Russell in training ahead of the Scotland v Wales Six Nations match at BT Murrayfield. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Scotland stand-off Finn Russell in training ahead of the Scotland v Wales Six Nations match at BT Murrayfield. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Greeg is Greig Laidlaw and Finn is Finn Russell, who has just sat down next to me. He didn’t see this tweet when it was posted last season and now he’s laughing, too. Vern isn’t really Stern, he says, and enjoys banter with the boys. But today’s key question is this: does the Dark Blues’ star playmaker really gawp at big silver birds, 36,000ft up, sending greetings from terra firma?

“Depends!” he says, chuckling some more. So is he the daft laddie of the team? “Yeah, I like to have fun. I mean, I do take things seriously but I like a laugh and stuff.” He’s 24 but can seem younger. I hear you’re fond of trips to the cinema, I say. “Aye,” he says. But that you don’t watch the movie, just grab some Pick ’n’ Mix and head back home? “Sometimes, aye.”

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I attempt a discussion on the cheap-and-cheerful, multi-option confectionery and quickly realise I’m in the company of a connoisseur. He quickly realises he’s in the company of an ignoramus but tolerates my questions. “Chocolate mice? Not so much. I like fizzy strawberries, fizzy cherries, fizzy belts and laces – the jelly sweets.” What about Jelly Babies? “No, I’m more of a Haribo man. I prefer the sour kind.”

Fizzy would be a good way to describe Russell’s rugby, wouldn’t it? Those flips, flicks, dinks, juggles and spins seem to emerge from a sherbet explosion in the Scotland midfield. This was a more conservative place before he turned up, two and a bit years ago. Maybe the imagery of him chasing planes to the bottom of the lawn is useful here, too. There’s a boyish innocence and exuberance to his game and you hope he never loses it.

Russell has packed a helluva lot into those two and a bit years. He began, dauntingly, by lining up against Dan Carter, the start of a comeback trail for the best stand-off on the planet which climaxed in New Zealand’s World Cup glory. But the same All Blacks magician was eclipsed by Russell before Christmas, not once but twice, when the latter was dazzling with Glasgow Warriors. Here’s another illustration of the dramatic change in his circumstances: Russell performed at the same World Cup, having little memory of the previous tournament because he was slogging away as a stonemason. And our man has also found the time to have loved and lost a beauty queen, more of which later.

Today against Wales at Murrayfield he wins his 25th cap. There should be plenty more of them – and maybe a place on this summer’s Lions tour as well – as long as he doesn’t make a habit of kicking conversions with the ball lying flat. And we should talk about that bizarre moment against France last time out because it’s instructive.

He wasn’t trying to be a show-off; the ball fell off the tee at the crucial moment. It was an important stage of the game, too. Scotland had just surged back into the lead in a contest which was ultimately lost and, right in front of the posts, that should have been a certain two points. Immediately afterwards, the blame was directed at the coaching staff for shouting at Russell to hurry his kick in case there was a chance Tim Swinson’s try could have been ruled out by an infringement shown up on video. But the player isn’t blaming anyone today; it was just one of those crazy things.

“I’ve been having a laugh about it all week,” he reveals. “I’ve been saying to the boys that if they’re going to score a try against Wales then they have to make sure it’s not under the posts. Yesterday I was actually practising kicks with the ball flat, just having a laugh. Most of them went over, too!”

Don’t think, though, that Russell reckons this rugby lark to be one big giggle. He was desperately disappointed the kick was missed and the game ended in defeat. And he’s desperately keen that Scotland get back to winning against the Welsh, with kicking likely to fall to him full-time in the wake of the injury to Laidlaw.

“That miss was frustrating but it’s done. You can’t look back or beat yourself up over it. I guess I’ve learned not to rush myself in those situations. That was a tough match and France were good. Wales come here on the back of a defeat [against England] in which they played well and on another day might have won the game so they’ll be determined. But that’s our scenario, too.”

Not much seems to faze fizzy Finn. Hopelessly squirted kicks don’t give him sleepless nights and he’s trying to think of a personal phobia but can’t. “My mum doesn’t like spiders or heights but hasn’t passed her fears onto me.” You might call Russell the chilled-out entertainer if the term hadn’t been made slightly risible by The Office’s David Brent. Russell loves to entertain with his Pick ’n’ Mix assortment of moves and he’s certainly a cool and laidback individual.

“I just like to chill out and not think about things too much,” he said in 2014 when he burst on to the scene. After more flamboyance in another match he offered: “I just tried to keep chilled. I just did whatever I felt like.”

Now, he knows he must play with his head, which can’t be too full of E numbers. He knows he must choose the right moment for a pass that’s off-the-cuff and beyond the manuals. Increasingly he does these things. But he loves to amaze and sometimes amuse.

“I play the way I play; I don’t really know where it comes from,” he says. “Some people describe it as risky. I admit it’s unpredictable. I like to play on the edge, I like to have a crack. I’ll take a gamble if I can but there’s no point in throwing a stupid one.

“There have been times when I have. My dad, my brothers and my mates are always quick to say: ‘What was that?’ After the France game there were a few texts slagging me for some of my offloads.” So how many times has a coach told him to cut out the fancy stuff? “Oh I still get that. When things don’t come off I know they won’t be happy.” Then he smiles. “I like to make the game interesting. Keep everyone on their toes!”

The second oldest of parents Keith and Sally’s four children, Russell grew up in Bridge of Allan. They’re a sporty family – Keith’s a sports administrator – and all three boys play rugby, Russell’s younger brother Archie with Ayr and Harry at Falkirk. He shares a flat in Glasgow with Archie and sister Jessie who’re both at university in the city. “The house back in Bridge of Allan is quite empty now and our folks get a bit lonely so mum never needs much excuse to pay us a visit.”

The Russells are packed tighter than one of Finn’s bags of sweets. His much-missed Uncle Charles, who died in an accident when Russell was young, used to race motorbikes. “My brothers and I have got one of his old bikes back in the garage in Bridge of Allan. It’s a Norton Commando – a classic – and one day I’m going to ride it. Mum isn’t so keen but I tell her you can’t stop what’s obviously in the blood!”

At the Warriors, Russell plays in a similar free-jazz way to that of his coach Gregor Townsend when the latter was Scotland’s No 10. This fruitful relationship will transfer to national level when Townsend takes over from Cotter after the Six Nations. But Russell’s journey to becoming one of the game’s most exciting talents was unconventional. He wasn’t hothoused for greatness from an early age; indeed, he had to drop down a division – Stirling County to Falkirk – just to get himself on to the pitch.

If that seemed like a step backwards, it helped Russell to quickly move forwards in a thrilling blur. In 2014, just two weeks after turning out for Ayr against Gala, he’d swapped the club game for the Pro12, helping Glasgow to semi-final victory over Munster in front of 10,000 at Scotstoun – a decisive moment in this reawakening of Scottish rugby. Just six months after that, he was facing up to Kiwi legend Carter.

Could his life get even more exciting and glamorous? Well, yes. He started stepping out with girlfriend Mhairi Fergusson who, around the time of 2015’s World Cup, was crowned 
Miss Scotland. Photographed together, she’s wearing her winner’s tiara and he’s sporting the look of a kid who’s been given the run of his favourite sweetshop.

The romance ended last year, shortly before another Pro12 semi against Irish opposition and Russell tells a poignant story about the Connacht tie. “That was the game where I got my head 
injury. Zander Fagerson crashed into me after just 56 seconds. I was in a daze in the medical room and for a moment couldn’t understand why Mhari wasn’t there. I was looking around for her 
but then I remembered: ‘Oh aye, we split up.’

“I was kept in hospital in Dublin for a while and she came to visit me. It just didn’t quite work out between us. We were both busy, her with modelling and me with the rugby. That was a shame but, at this age, you’ve kind of got to put your job first. I saw her at a game in Ayr a few weeks ago – her sister’s fiance is a pal – and I think she’s out in South Africa right now.

“I thought we got on pretty well. She suffered from epilepsy as a kid but is a great example of not letting an illness hold you back. She organised a ball for one of the charities and raised £250,000. It was great fun being at events and parties with her but I’m 
single again and that’s cool. I can do what I want, go for a coffee or to the cinema, no hassles.” So were his team-mates supportive during the break-up? “Oh aye. They called me ‘Mr Scotland’ when she won her title. Then they said: ‘You’re not Mr 
Scotland anymore!’”

So Russell continues on his merry way, weaving idiosyncratic patterns round opposition players and past life’s little dramas, stumbling only occasionally, learning as he goes. That injury reminded him that rugby can be a short life; more serious and the career could have been over. He is contracted to Warriors for one more season after this. Inevitably there is speculation he’ll move on, probably to England or France. “I love playing for Glasgow and I love the boys there,” he says. “But if you get the chance of a different experience, a new 
challenge, then you have to think about it.”

You wonder what part that hard graft chiselling rock has played in forming Russell’s character. Is he expressing freedom from the shackles of its tight, rigid lines when he gets the ball in his hands? Is he just glad he isn’t beginning a shift at 7.30am anymore?

He hasn’t really thought about this but doesn’t regret those three years learning the stonemason’s trade; indeed, it sort of niggles him that he didn’t complete his final bout of practical to qualify for his “ticket”.

“It was tough work, especially in winter-time. I remember miserable mornings where it was minus 13 and I’d be cutting stone and ice would be coming straight back at me. But I never got depressed and thought to myself: ‘Is this going to be me for the rest of my life?’ What those years have done is given me an appreciation of how fortunate I am now, 
playing sport for a living.

“I had a good mate on those jobs and Deril and I would keep each other going. I’ve got a lot of pals who’ve got trades: a couple of engineers, sparks, a bus-builder. And, aye, they’re always saying to me: ‘So when are you going to get a real job?’”