Scotland 54 - 17 Fiji: Finn Russell flourishing on French flair

Scotland's Finn Russell looks to offload as he's tackled by Fiji's Frank Lomani. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
Scotland's Finn Russell looks to offload as he's tackled by Fiji's Frank Lomani. Pic: SNS/SRU/Gary Hutchison
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Like the close-knit family who’d been counting the days until the much-loved son returned from a gap year, Murrayfield mustered a full turnout eager to discover what Finn Russell had learned down in France.

The stand-off’s last great flourish as a home-based Scot was still vivid in the memory of those who packed the stands: the long, long pass igniting the break for the second try in the trouncing of England last February. The pass has its own mythology, possibly its own Twitter account as well.

So what would Russell produce based on his new experiences of being a rugby backpacker at Racing 92? Well, a No.10 from the Paris outfit was on the scoreboard right away, but this was Russell’s club-mate Ben Volavola slotting a penalty for Fiji.

Russell hasn’t gone to France hoping to immerse himself in Gallic flair to enhance his playmaking; he already possesses plenty of that. He’s one of those quixotic characters least in need of a certain “Je ne sais quoi”. And what’s French for “Je ne sais quoi”, anyway?

The Scotland coaching staff have been stressing that French rugby isn’t all about chucking the ball avec abandonner, that lots of game-management is required of the half-backs there and it’s in this area where Russell is really learning.

He was his usual imperturbable self when daring to launch a break from virtually his own tryline but apart from a couple of routine kicks it was seeming like a quietish return for the man, although he was demonstrably hollering instructions, marshalling the heavy lifters, scanning for a wee opening. It was unclear whether his shouts were of “Allez! Allez!”

One such spyhole of opportunity arose but, moving to the left, he forgot the ball and fumbled. By then Scotland had notched two tries courtesy of the front row.

Allan Dell got the first and it would have been great if Willem Nel had scored the second. But you can’t have everything. We didn’t get Archie Bell & the Drells as the warm-up act either and Fraser Brown it was who plunged over for the five points.

Then, always lurking and loitering with that cocky swagger, Russell tried to kick through for Peter Horne but the ball squirted out of danger to the Fijians who had rallied with two tries of their own, the first from Viliame Mata using local knowledge as an Edinburgh No.8 to touch down.

Inveterate ball-jugglers, the South Sea Islanders on song can resemble 15 Finn Russells, if you can contemplate that, and the involvement of their forwards in these scores, most conspicuously Tevita Cavubati for the second, hinted that this could turn into a real fling-it-around flair-up, if only Russell could get Scotland’s backs going.

Alongside him was Greig Laidlaw, who forged a French path before his No.10 and forms a Sporran Legion with him now. Presumably the Scotland captain, who plays his rugby at Clermont Auvergne, is well-practised at relaxed three-hour lunches with wine and philosophical debate. But he wasn’t taking it easy, being his usual quiet but busy self and popping over the conversions.

The home team thought they’d bagged another try, again from the front row, but it was chalked off. Then Russell was caught round the neck with a tackle from Eroni Vasiteri, one of a few questionable blocks. So far it hadn’t been Russell’s game but right on half-time Scotland wrested the lead from Fiji and the backs wrested the kudos from the forwards with Russell despatching the ball in a whistling arc of which a back-garden rocket enthusiast would have been proud. Was this a longer delivery than the one which landed on the beach at Calais? Oh for sure, and Tommy Seymour was the grateful recipient.

Seymour’s fellow winger Sean Maitland wanted in on the backs’ new-found dominance of the play and the scoring and landed a try right after the resumption. Fiji’s early spirit was fizzling out fast and Scotland had the visitors where they wanted them, pinned right back, with Russell twanging their defence with teasing kicks to either corner. Try-bagger Brown went off, depleting the chances of any more counters from the top of the scrum, and Seymour weighed in with his second.

The third wasn’t long in coming. Russell was inevitably involved, the speed and angle of his pass to Horne hinting that this might be the score of the day, and it was. Substitute Chris Harris brought vim of his own to the move, allowing the Glasgow Warrior to secure his hat-trick.

There was time for two more tries, the second of them crafted by Russell. There was nothing on, or so it seemed, but then he dived through a gap in his own half and cantered upfield, nonchalantly setting up another substitute, Adam Hastings, and Gavin’s son was able to collect the ball in his stride and score.

Russell took the conversion out wide, the very last kick of the game, and the breeze carried it between the posts.

And that was it, the end. Fin. Or, as we like to say, Finn.