Scotland last beat France in 2006, one decade ago, when Sean Lamont claimed a brace. It was the first, and the only, time that Scotland have won more matches than they have lost in the Six Nations. Can he remember, Finn Russell is quizzed, if he was there?
“I wasn’t there,” he replies, somewhat puzzled. “I must have been at Falkirk?”
It was ten years ago so – Russell’s memory gets a nudge – he’d have been 13 years old at the time.
“Ten years ago! I was still at school and playing for County,” he says as the truth dawns on him. “I probably would have watched it. To be honest, I can’t remember!”
Russell hasn’t a clue what he was doing ten years ago and why should he? The past is a foreign country and ten years is a lifetime for someone who is still only 23. It isn’t ancient history, which is well researched, documented and recorded; it is recent history, which no-one gives a fig about – or no-one would, except that 2006 marked Scotland’s one and, to date, only Six Nations success over France.
French rugby is famously inconsistent but not if you check their record against Scotland since 2006 which reads played ten, won ten. Might this Scotland team end the sorry sequence?
“They are all tough games, international Tests in this competition,” replies Russell, as if the fans aren’t already painfully aware of that fact. “I think for us we’ll do what we do each game and focus on our job. We’ll look at the other teams but it’s mainly about focusing on what we need to improve for France and Ireland.
“We’re confident, we had a good win at the weekend, but there is still a lot to improve and we need to focus on ourselves rather than getting caught up thinking we have won these games already. It’s a Test match and it’s not going to be easy no matter what so I’d rather be focusing on ourselves.
“I think looking at it we are sitting fourth just now, so we are in a good position with a couple of tough games [to come] but if we can build on the previous performance we have a good chance of winning the next two if we play at our best.”
On the subject of playing at one’s best, Russell’s form has been a little French itself, although he has the World Cup excuse to fall back upon. He was pretty good during the cup itself but suffered a dip in form upon returning to club colours. Last Saturday in Rome Russell was back to his best form, fizzing passes down the back line and dancing his way between a couple of leaden-footed Italian forwards to set up John Hardie’s try.
His option-taking was solid, although he admits in retrospect that he could have tested the Italian back-three a little more in the air, but at 23 Russell has time on his side. He may need it. Scotland’s successful U20s squad boasts three very useful stand-offs, at least one of whom is likely to emerge as a challenger before long.
For now Russell just needs time in the saddle. He may be young but he talks, and occasionally plays, like an elder statesman. He is growing into the international shirt with each season, filling the jersey out a little more with every appearance, assuming responsibility, stepping up.
“I think quite a few of us now are not as inexperienced and we have played quite a lot of games,” he offers by way of explanation. “We’re certainly not as inexperienced as we were during the last Six Nations. We now have an extra ten games under our belts and there are quite a few of us in key positions who have to step up and help Greig [Laidlaw] out. We can’t leave it all down to him to control a team himself but I do think we are getting better at that.”
“My Six Nations so far has been OK,” he continues. “I don’t think I’ve properly got into my stride yet. I’m playing good rugby but I’m reflecting on when I first broke into the Glasgow team, that’s when I was playing my best rugby. I like having Greig next to me. He’s on top, he’s really vocal and he’s experienced so for me to have him there makes my job a lot easier, I can focus on what I’ve got to do.
“We drill the attack so much everyone knows their own role and at Glasgow you’re trying to work on so many different things whereas here it’s pretty specific so it’s definitely a little bit easier when I come here [the Scotland camp] and everyone’s focused on their job and done their homework. We’re in camp and it’s pretty intense but it’s good and I just try and do my job.”
Russell is experienced enough to know what to expect against France but he doesn’t yet know who he will be facing. The Scot refers to both French stand-offs as “world-class” but in Jules Plisson’s case he could be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. The starting ten had a complete couchmare against Wales, coming as close as anyone in rugby can to scoring an “own try”.
His replacement, Francois Trinh-Duc, looked the part, slicing open the Welsh defence with one superb break, and France coach Guy Noves will surprise everyone if the Montpellier man doesn’t get the nod next Sunday.
“France will be incredibly physical, great forward pack,” Russell notes. “I watched them at the weekend and their forwards were really good. Their backs, if they sniff one opportunity they’ll take it and that’s maybe when we’ll get that expansive game, if they see they’re numbers up they’ll throw it wide and if they’re through the middle they’ll have a go and they’ll throw those offloads.
“That’s the French style of rugby, if you look at the club teams they play like that. I know, having played Racing Metro, if they have 50-50 on an offload or even 60-40 they’ll throw it and they could score from it so it’s almost worth that risk.”
Whatever else, Scotland must keep 15 men on the field of play, something they failed to do in Rome, and Russell has previous to take into consideration on this score. The No.10 earned a yellow card against Wales last season which may have swung the balance in a tight game. He did the same in Rome and, while the short-handed Scots conceded one converted try, Russell fingers the real culprits.
“I don’t usually do that sort of stuff,” he complains with some justification. “I’m not usually in a ruck so I just saw the ball and thought it was OK to go for it. The ref just said I was slowing the play down and it was a professional foul so he thought it was a yellow card.
“I am going to give it to the forwards in the neck and ask them why I was there in that position and they weren’t!”
All the veterans blame their forwards. He may be young but Russell is proving a fast learner.