IT HAS been a swift coronation. Barely a few months ago, Finn Russell was no more than a young pretender. Now, just five caps into his international career, he is established as Scotland’s first-choice fly-half: the playmaker who carries our hopes into the RBS Six Nations Championship.
Indeed, at 22 Russell does more than provide grounds for optimism for the coming tournament. With fortune and a following wind, he could remain at the helm of the team for the rest of the decade and beyond.
The selection of a stand-off is always a pivotal decision for a coach, and Vern Cotter’s choice of Russell to start all three autumn Tests spoke volumes about the positive approach the New Zealander has taken with the national side. Laconic and undemonstrative in his public appearances, Cotter may come across as cautious, even conservative; but in reality he is an adherent of adventure and ambition.
Instead of going for the safe option, the coach has consistently favoured players who, although perhaps inexperienced, offer Scotland something different: a touch of unpredictability; a spark of inspiration. Cotter’s game plan is founded on solidity, dependability, consistency, but those qualities are invariably only enough to keep a team in contention in a match or a competition. Hence his choice of those who, like Russell, can be more than merely contenders.
Having only made his debut during last year’s summer tour, Russell knows he has a long way to go before becoming the complete international package. But Cotter has assured him that he has all the right ingredients already, and that with experience will come wisdom: above all, knowing when to curb his natural running game and take the more measured option.
“He’s not changed the way I play too much,” Russell explains when asked about the coach. “In the November Tests it was quite an open, running game of rugby, and that’s the sort of style I like to play. When I was young I was always taught to never kick the ball, always run with it. Even when you were on your own five, just run it, run it, run it. Keep a hold of it.
“To be allowed to play like that is brilliant. At times you’ve got to adapt and play a slightly more kicking game and a more tactical game. A few games this year, I’ve learned a lot from them, and hopefully I’ll be able to take that into the future.”
Given the national squad is together for no more than two or three months of the year, a bigger influence on Russell’s development is likely to be Gregor Townsend, his coach at Glasgow Warriors. Two decades ago, Townsend was in the position that Russell occupies now: a young, gifted player who had to learn to temper his attacking flair by playing the percentages at times.
“It’s great having Gregor there. He was a running ten and a world-class ten. I can’t remember watching him too much, but I think he was one of those guys who had to learn how to play the tactical side of the game.
“The only way to do that is through experience, and having Gregor there means he can give me his advice on how he worked around it and got used to the more tactical side of the game. He might give me small points each week, or just one point every couple of weeks, but they all add up and going from game to game it’s good to get a chance to adapt week on week and get better and better.”
Besides such individual advice, Russell has gained a lot from being in several different teams over a relatively short period of time, from the Stirling County second XV all the way up to Scotland. “My last three years I’ve probably played in five or six different teams, so to have that experience of going into a new team and establishing yourself as kind of the leader, the man who’s in charge of attack and stuff like that, it’s definitely helped me and got me a lot of confidence, speaking to different players.
“Off the pitch I’ll not want to speak too much. At meetings I’m at the back and won’t really speak up. But on the pitch I see it as 15 guys who I’m in a team with.
“If [Scotland captain and scrum-half] Greig Laidlaw is there I’ll say ‘I’m thinking this or that, what do you think?’, and if he thinks something different we’ll discuss it on the pitch quickly and we’ll generally – hopefully – get the right decision. I think a large part of that comes from going from team to team and having to establish myself quickly as the leader.
“It’s all come so quickly and I’ve had to battle to get the No 10 jersey, or the No 12 when I first broke in. I’ve always had the drive to get the No 10 jersey, and when I get it, because there’s so much competition, you’ve got to play at your best to keep it.
“If I go on a pitch I want to . . . not be the stand-out guy, but you always want to have a good game and if I ever come off thinking ‘I could have done this or that’ I’ll be disappointed with myself.
“I’m never really happy with my performance. There’s things to work on. My dad is quite, not strict with me, but he’ll tell me what he thinks straight away. Sometimes it’s a case of him saying I was good and I’ll still be hard on myself.”
Of course, there is only so much Russell can do on his own, and Scotland will only be able to exploit his abilities to the full if the rest of the team are on his wavelength. That failed to happen with Townsend for years at international level, until eventually he found likeminded centres in John Leslie and Alan Tait, and together that triumvirate inspired Scotland to win the last Five Nations in 1999.
This Scotland team may be nowhere close to that one yet, but Russell already has two kindred spirits who could play just outside him in Matt Scott and Mark Bennett, and all the signs are that, after several stunted seasons, the national team under Cotter is growing up fast.
“Everyone knows we can’t be over-confident,” Russell adds. “We beat Argentina and Tonga well and got close to New Zealand [in the Autumn Tests], but everyone knows there is still a lot to work on. The Six Nations will be a different competition, but we’re in a good place going into it.” ✱