Scotland’s Finn Russell ready for psychological battle

A jubilant Finn Russell leaves the pitch after Scotland's 27-22 win over Ireland at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS/SRU
A jubilant Finn Russell leaves the pitch after Scotland's 27-22 win over Ireland at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS/SRU
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I started but did not finish a sports psychology course a few years back and I well remember the unfeigned horror of the course principal, a PhD, naturally, when I claimed that, if the opposition could legitimately put All Blacks playmaker Dan Carter off the field by injuring him, strictly within the laws of the game, they would do so in a heart-beat. For Carter read Russell.

Such is the form of Scotland’s stand-off that France’s big men, and as England coach Eddie Jones noted recently “they must be putting something in the red wine” because Les Bleus are not short of giants, will go looking for Finn Russell with malice aforethought. In fact, France coach Guy Noves has selected three ball carriers in the back row, Louis Picamoles, Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon, any one of whom will have licence to introduce themselves to the Scottish stand-off in person.

If the prospect of big breakaways coming calling was anathema to my ex-lecturer, it seems that Russell views it very differently.

“They have a big back three,” he says with added feeling. “Picamoles last week, he was outstanding, so I am not looking forward to him coming off the back of a scrum. It’s part of the game, as a ten it’s part of the position, you are probably the first guy to get someone running at you.

“You generally have a 12 outside you who can help or a 
seven inside but you are going to get isolated at times. It’s part of the sport and being a ten you are brought up with it.”

Russell is in the form of his life and even had one experienced watcher comparing him with the great Barry John. “He was there,” explained the veteran, “but when you went to tackle him he was over there,” pointing ten yards away.

That is almost exactly what Russell achieved at Welford Road when skinning Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup. Like a matador he drew the opposition right on to him before releasing someone else, inside, outside or half a pitch away with that famous miss pass of his which fizzes across the back line.

But even without the peerless Wesley Fofana, the French backs are no fools and Remi Lamerat in the No 13 shirt will be on a mission to intercept
at least one or two of Russell’s bullets tomorrow afternoon.

As always in rugby, variety
is the key so Scotland have turned to chaos theory to keep the opposition guessing.

“You can’t just throw the ball wide/wide against France because they will fly up and they have smart players and will read that,” said Russell.

“So, we will play wide sometimes but we need to get the balance right between going round them, through them and over them.

“We can’t just expect to stick to one gameplan. With the ball I think I am free to do what I want as long as there is a reason behind it, I hope! Me and Greig [scrum-half Laidlaw] have an idea of what they might throw at us so, if we see things, we might go for them on the hoof. You have to adapt to the situation.

“Ireland changed their defence and attack and put us under pressure in the second half and we had to change our defence and attack.

“We are structured but unstructured… if that makes sense? Vern [Cotter, head coach] calls it creating chaos so, although it may seem like we don’t have a clue what is going on, we actually do. The guys out wide let me and Greig know what is on. It is just adapting.”

It was instructive to hear Scotland skipper Laidlaw talking about decision makers after the Ireland game and including Russell. The No 10 may occasionally adopt the outward appearance of a daft laddie – who can forget that memorable little jig at the side of the pitch three years ago against Argentina – but scratch the surface and the 24 year old is a deep thinker.

As such he recognises another like-minded soul in Jason O’Halloran. The Scotland attack coach may have more tools in the box than his immediate predecessors but he still has to make best use of them. Scotland were clinical against Ireland, making the most of their opportunities and finishing with a completion ratio above 50 per cent, which is surely some sort of high water mark for a team that couldn’t buy a try for the best part of a decade.

Russell said: “Jason has been really good. The way he sees the game is slightly different to the way we have always been coached at Glasgow or at Scotland. It’s good to have Jason in to show us a different sort of picture and make us aware that there are different opportunities and different plays that we can run.

“At the start we had three or four plays we could call in phase play and now there are another three or four as well. We enjoy working with him and the forwards do as well.

“He asks a lot from the players in terms of standards and what we are able to do but, at this level, it’s what you need – a coach demanding the best from the players.”

It had been 11 years since 
Scotland won their opening Six Nations match. They have never won their first two and they have never won a Six Nations encounter in Paris.

So, what would it mean for this squad to return from France with two from two?

“It would be brilliant for us in the championship,” added Russell. “1999 was the last time we won there so it’s been quite a while.

“We could have got the draw in the World Cup warm-up [against France in Paris].

“It’s different when you are in a friendly so, if we were able to go over there and get a win, it would be massive for us as a team, for the nation and for the competition.”