Finn Russell is a high-risk, long-pass, clifftop unicycling player – the kind I love

We are being challenged. The gauntlet has been well and truly tossed at our feet. And because the thrower was Finn Russell, it has arrived from some distance back, artfully spun.

Defences up ... Finn Russell has responded to criticisms about his performances - and his physique
Defences up ... Finn Russell has responded to criticisms about his performances - and his physique

The question first of all concerns sport and how we want our teams to play. Narrowing it down, this is about rugby. But widening it out, national character comes into play. Who do we think we are? Who do we want to be?

Russell has responded to criticisms of the Scotland team and his own performances in the most recent Six Nations. If you remember, there was wild talk beforehand about us winning the tournament. In the end we finished fourth.

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“Average to be honest,” is Russell’s assessment of just two victories, the opener against England, which only increased the hype, and the fairly predictable one against Italy. Of his performances he says this season has been “not my best”. Tiredness from the Lions tour was probably a factor and what should have been “rest days” during the Six Nations were often spent on a plane, shuttling between Paris and Edinburgh, club and country. That’s the lot of the overseas star, of course – “part of the job”.

The overseas star and, in Scotland’s case, the biggest star. So much is down to him. If he’s having a great game then Scotland are probably winning, and winning with the flair which has heightened expectations about this team. But if he’s not, well …

At times during the championship when opponents tightened their defences in an attempt to squat on the lid of his box of tricks, Scotland could look laboured. It was a flashback to the early part of the century, pre-Finn, when the backline had no zip.

England in that first game were determined not to be caught out by the long, long pass from Russell to Huw Jones – so long it seemed to have been launched from Ravelston Dykes, high above Murrayfield – which sparked the second try in Scotland’s 2018 Calcutta Cup victory. So he diversified with two stunning crossfield kicks, turning the game our way.

But the following week in Wales his kicking was off and an opposition badly hit by injury successfully turned the match ugly and Scotland, with Russell sin-binned, lost the scrap.

He was penalised for an intentional knock-on but he’d been trying to intercept. At Twickenham in 2019 he’d timed his ambush slightly better, kept hold of the ball and raced away for a try in that phantasmagorical 38-38 game. You win some, you lose some (and now and again you draw some). But you have a go, you’re bold.

Scotland’s 10 plays a high-risk, long-pass, clifftop-unicycling game. We have all bought into it, and loved it when it’s come off and made us look sexy. When he doesn’t hit the heights it’s more noticeable in his role, centre-stage and with the buzz that’s around him now, if a no-look pass turns into a no-collect one. But others this season disappointed at crucial moments. Against France, Chris Harris’s attempt to find Stuart Hogg with a Russellesque boomer was either poorly executed or the captain’s fault for not catching it - the jury’s still split. Either way there’s always more pressure on the standoff in such situations. More acclaim when he thrills, more criticism when he doesn’t.

Russell has addressed the issue of him being a death-or-glory player, capable of winning matches on his own but losing them too. “This reputation has followed me throughout my career,” he says. “When I landed in Glasgow and then in the Scotland team I tried different things – things that other players did not do before me.” (Too right, I remember those dreary days).

“But if you look at how the openers on the international circuit play, they also try things: offloads, kicks over the top, all that. Marcus Smith does, Romain Ntamack too. But when it’s me I’m told [such plays are] ‘risky’, ‘not a good idea’.”

Russell also responds to observations, none complimentary, over his physique. A doffed shirt did not reveal the ripped torso of Cristiano Ronaldo (but, in the best sense of the word, the Manchester United footballer is a freak, right?). “In the gym I do what I have to do to be ready for the weekend, no more,” says the fly-half. “Me, I’m a rugby player, not a bodybuilder.”

His job on the field is not to push back cement mixers. Important for him is “the psychological side” and staying happy, on and off the pitch. “My body doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care if I don’t have chocolate bars. I love burgers and pizza too much, anyway.”

Six-pack or Six Nations? His physique would be irrelevant if Scotland had won the tournament (though Russell might have been offered a big-money ad deal for his favourite junk food). But are we really saying the team failed because of his slight chunkiness? Maybe they’re not as good as we – or they – thought. But that is not all down to Russell.

Without the biggest pack in the world or half a dozen game-changers elsewhere we need the unexpected to win us matches and Russell will often provide. Just not this season. But, wondering if his public understand what he’s trying to do out there, he says: “Maybe I should have started rugby 15 years later.” (Or maybe he should have been born a Frenchman).

I remember Scotland 15 years in the other direction and it wasn’t much fun (we collected the wooden spoon in 2007). I don’t want to watch a functional fly-half with a never-changing routine. I don’t want that to be representative of us. Is it not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

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