Finn Russell relishing freedom of expression at Racing 92

Finn Russell. Pic: Michael Gillen
Finn Russell. Pic: Michael Gillen
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Racing 92 are famed for their running rugby and always have been but all that could change this afternoon when the Parisian aristocrats will get their hands dirty at Leicester’s old-school Welford Road ground. The forecast calls for rain and snow.

“Oh, good!” stand-off Finn Russell says in response to the news. “They will be wanting to win at home and keep the European tournament alive for them.

“It’s a big game for them as well as for us. I think, depending upon the weather, it could be a very different game to what it was [last weekend]. We’ll have to see what the weather is like and then decide how to play the game.”

It was just seven short years ago that Russell quit Stirling Country and moved to Falkirk for the princely sum of £50 per week. Now he fills Dan Carter’s number 10 shirt at Racing 92 and is the highest paid Scottish rugby player on the planet.

“It is very different,” says Russell, without danger of contradiction. “It was 6 ½ years ago I moved to Glasgow. It seems like a long time but it’s not really and a lot of things have changed in those 6 ½ years, more than might normally happen.

“Every day I drive home and see the Eiffel Tower ahead of me and nowadays it’s all lit up. It’s quite pleasing, it’s quite rewarding to get that because 6 ½ years ago I was a stonemason and now my life is in Paris and I meet some amazing people here so it’s a very big difference.”

It can be a fraught business moving club, country and culture all in one hectic summer but Russell has managed it with aplomb and with the help of one brother in arms in particular. Irish international Simon Zebo, pictured, also moved to Racing where their bromance has blossomed, both on and off the field.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see the parallels between two individuals in a team game, both of whom struggled under Kiwi coaches who did not necessarily appreciate players going off piste. The pair are mavericks, trusting their intuition rather than sticking rigidly to any grand preordained plan.

Zebo was never entirely trusted by Joe Schmidt, who dropped the wing/fullback from the national squad as soon as he quit the country.

Ireland’s loss has been Russell’s gain as the amigos combine to great effect, the Scot creating a try for the Irishman in last weekend’s victory over Leicester Tigers in Paris with a half-break and a sublime out-the-back offload.

“We were both in the same boat coming over here to a new club and the way we are playing, we are playing with fun and just enjoying it,” says Russell on his new-found friend.

“We are both on the same page, looking for the same things. We get on really well off the field so on the field it makes it a lot easier. We have linked really well as 10 and 15 or 10 and wing. He’ll see things that I might not pick up and I’ll see things that he might not see and we have a really good connection going so he is good to play off.

“He’s an English speaker but he has French as well because his dad is from Martinique so he has a good level of French. For him the transition was a little easier in terms of speaking French and fitting in. But him speaking English has made it a lot easier for me to fit in, we are both in the same boat and we live 500 metres from each other. We share lifts in most days and we see each other most weekends as well. We see a lot of each other outwith training, we have a really good bond off the field as well.”

The language is the one area where Zebo is streets ahead of the Scot. The Irishman, former Glasgow star Leone Nakarawa and Russell all live near to each other not far from the Palace of Versailles, a long way from the city centre and the recent riots. The problem with having all these English-speaking pals is in finding anyone at the club talking French.

“They want to practise their English so all I hear is English,” Russell complains before conceding that language is the biggest barrier he faces.

If language is tricky, he makes the rugby look easy and the contrast to last season’s struggles is stark. Russell admits he was below his best, muttering about a “difficult time” and citing his father’s legal arm wrestle with Scottish Rugby as an unwanted distraction.

Without those burdens, the confidence that fuels his on-field fireworks is back and the Scot has been hot all season, kicking close to 90 per cent off the tee, and performing consistently well despite the high workload he faces while former Springbok stand-off Pat Lambie is sidelined.

Racing play in a state-of-the-art, indoor air-conditioned stadium in La Defence area of Paris, which helps Russell’s ball-in-hand attack. It also helps that Racing allow the Scot the freedom to do his thing, and Russell has responded with the best rugby of his life. “We have a great mindset towards rugby,” says Russell of his new club and coaches. “When you are there to do a job we get it done but outwith that it’s just a bit of fun, it’s upbeat and it’s great for me. They have given me the freedom to play how I want to play, there is obviously a structure there, but within the structure you can play it up-the-jersey if you want or you can play it wide.

“Again it gives me the freedom during a match to change and adapt, and all the boys love that. I like doing whatever I want, it gives me the freedom to play whatever is on at the time.”

Russell insists that Racing have the personnel to play in any way they choose. The club is targeting the domestic/Euro double and the stand-off insists that, at their best, Racing can beat anyone else in the competition. He may be right on both counts, although Clermont’s pack dismantled Racing in the second match of the season and Saracens/Leinster might fancy emulating them should push come to shove. Ahead of this weekend, Racing were one of three teams with a perfect record in Europe, Toulouse and Sarries being the others.

While Paris and Glasgow don’t usually bear too many comparisons, Russell insists there are similarities for the rugby clubs. Both play in big cities where players go unrecognised and both places are dominated by football, the Old Firm in Glasgow, PSG in Paris.

Talking about the Top 14 the stand-off professes not to know exactly where Racing sit, “fourth or fifth”, (they are fifth). Coming from anyone else this would be a conceit, coming from Russell it appears to be nothing more than his way of keeping the pressures of sporting life at arm’s length. He is equally vague about what the future holds.

“I’m not sure,” he says, “The reason I came here was the challenge, to do something different. Glasgow was amazing, it was great for me coming up but coming here has opened my eyes. It’s just a completely different experience.

“I’ll be 28 when I finish my contract so I will still be young enough so I can move somewhere else if I want to but at the same time I am enjoying here so much, in Paris itself there is stuff going on all the time. It’s got everything you could imagine.

“It’s hard to say if I will be back [in Scotland] or if I’ll stay here or if I’ll go somewhere else… it’s still early on in my contract. I am not sure what is going to happen but if it continues like this I can see myself staying here.”

Given what he has already achieved, it is increasingly difficult to see him anywhere else.