One of the great joys of this job – and always at this time of year it seems toppermost – is sitting down with a man with cauliflower ears and saying to him: “Tell me about playing rugby for Scotland.”
I love the reminiscences about great games and also, since we’re talking Scotland, some semi-tragic ones. I love the anecdotes from the dressing-room, the banter from the training ground, the reaction from workmates in the office or the lorry depot when the players returned to the day job on Monday morning. That’s a clue: I love interviewing old guys from the amateur code best of all. So confession-time: I also want the tales from the pubs, from the post-match banquets, from when it was downtime on the overseas tours. All of this, because rugby is such an emotive thing for me, means that I reckon I have the best gig going.
Right now I’m wondering what Finn Russell’s yarn from last weekend will sound like, 30 years from now. It won’t be me sat down with him but my successor should have an interesting time: how much did the best player of his generation sporting a thistle on the breast have to drink the night before the build-up began in earnest for the 2020 Six Nations? How much is too much when – no pressure, chum – the team who had so often promised only to flatter to deceive needed to produce big performances after an anti-climactic World Cup?
Also, how would he describe his relationship with head coach Gregor Townsend? Was he one of those guys who needed to shoot the breeze, let off steam and sink a few beers in order to be ready to play at his flairful, firecracker best? And how did this attitude square with the sport that rugby became, with its massive wages for the top men and sellout Murrayfield crowds expecting metronomically Messi-esque brilliance every time he received the ball from his scrum-half?
Of course, all of this presumes that sometime around 2050 Russell will have a tale to tell. That in his career he’d amassed a fine body of work. That he’d inspired a Twickenham triumph or maybe championship glory or perhaps even World Cup redemption next time out in France. Or that he’d simply continued being Finn for the years he had left in the game: a bit daft, a bit risky, a bit brave and when it worked, a bit wonderful. All of this may yet come his way, but as of right now, it’s not looking too great.
Last weekend he stayed up late drinking. This weekend he was back in France at his club Racing 92 after storming out of Scotland’s team hotel. Next Saturday, having caused furious rewrites of Six Nations supplements and TV scene-setting, neither he nor his box of tricks will be on the field in Dublin following the match ban for breaching squad discipline. The question has to be: those last few scoops, were they worth it, Finn?
Russell can seem like a player from the old days. That is, he’s got a personality, and one which can’t be smoothed away by media training. He’s certainly got a personality on the pitch, and continues a bonnie-lad tradition stretching back through the Renwicks and Rutherfords and Irvines of the kind of man we want wearing the dark blue but don’t always have available. Old-days boozing, though – can it really be done any more?
We all loved the fuzzy footage from a George Street discotheque – are they still called that? – of the 2018 Calcutta Cup celebrations, a victory made more memorable by that Huw Jones try and that Russell pass (was it the longest recorded in world rugby? Nominate another if you think you’re hard enough). But that was a post-match sesh, time for malarkey well-earned. Surely the night before the hard work begins for a vital tournament is not the right moment to be drinking.
“How times have changed,” tweeted David Sole, pictured, referring to the rugger/bevvy interface back in his day. “Usual routine on the 16th of March 1990 … two pints of Guinness in the Buckstone Arms and then off to see a film at the Dominion. Seemed to work out OK for us … ” We all remember what happened on the 17th. The Grand Slam. The captain of that team pondered the issue further. Was this incident a one-off? If it was, then the ban seemed “harsh” and Russell’s flounce-out “petulant”. But if it wasn’t an isolated event then perhaps “stronger actions would have been merited”. Sole argued that “an experienced and effective leader” might have enabled Scotland to screw the top back on the bottle without exclusion being the result. But he admitted the big question remained unanswered. It is one which has so often frustrated coaches across the sporting spectrum, doubtless causing a few to swallow whistles, self-harm with magic markers and chew whiteboards: “How do you deal with a maverick?”
In Scotland we love mavericks, or is it that we seem to attract them? We think they sum up the national character, which is fine up to a point: one’s own man, not just a number, a bit of a romantic. But in a sport like rugby individualism has to exist within collectivism and function under team conditions – Russell was never going to beat Ireland all by himself. Conversely though, Scotland probably won’t win the game without him.
How do you deal with a maverick? How many trips to the bar do you give him, nearly a full fortnight before the big kick-off? I might have been prepared to allow Russell a few until I read that it wasn’t just backroom staff who tried and failed to get him to stop drinking and take himself off to bed – apparently he ignored other players, too. If this is correct then Russell is surely in danger of breaking a sacred code and putting at risk relationships within the group. He can have grumbles with authority, in this case Townsend (the two fell out at half-time last year at Twickenham) and the SRU (the dismissal case involving his father) but the team are the team and they’re everything. Meanwhile, I continue to think about that pass – The Pass. I’ve just marked it out again and can confirm the starting-point was way up on Ravelston Dykes. Along with the entire England backline it also took out the entire cast of EastEnders and William Rees-Mogg. I still hope to see Russell top it.