Finn Russell: ‘The World Cup draw was tough but that’s sport – we could have done better’ | Rugby union

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Modern rugby does not always trust its greatest showmen. As Danny Cipriani and Quade Cooper can testify it is often a lonely road for creative fly-halves with ambitions beyond an average coach’s imagination. Which is why it is so good to see a cheerful Finn Russell illuminating the bleak midwinter with a little pre- Christmas sparkle, a smiling artist adding deft splashes of vivid colour to a monochrome canvas.

The marriage between the Scottish muse and his new club Bath was far from certain to work. Even Russell wasn’t sure whether he and his South African director of rugby, Johann van Graan, renowned as a forward-oriented coach, would be on the same wavelength. Happily for all concerned the 31-year-old playmaker has settled right in and been the catalyst for a collective surge in confidence alongside the River Avon.

It is never just about one man – the influence of the Bath attack coach, Lee Blackett, has also clearly been important – but the right man can make a huge difference to a team’s self-belief. Because top-class fly-halves must deal in prose and poetry that requires more than just the occasional flight of fancy. Russell, as he hopes to underline this weekend against Cardiff in the Champions Cup, is genuinely the real deal these days.

Listening to him at a rain-drenched Recreation Ground in midweek was also to appreciate the value of sampling different playing environments. From Stirling County to Glasgow Warriors to Racing 92 in Paris to Bath – via an educational spell in New Zealand club rugby and a stint working as a stonemason – Russell has mastered the tricky art of staying true to himself while simultaneously exploring fresh horizons. “I think I’ve got a good balance just now of experience and age. I’m not trying to teach these boys anything new, I’m just showing them how I see the game, how I’m going to try and play it.”

His presence is having a visible galvanising effect. Out in the midfield Ollie Lawrence and Cameron Redpath look as if all their Christmases have come at once. Inside him at scrum-half, Ben Spencer is performing like an English Antoine Dupont. Even in the most challenging conditions, Bath are beginning to hum, having motored clear of Exeter and Ulster over the past two weekends.

The only remaining million-dollar question is whether he and they can sustain it. Particularly in the biggest games, in the Champions Cup and the Premiership – where Bath sit second in the table. As the recent World Cup underlined, style is fine but substance is also required to win major tournaments.

Bath’s Finn Russell in action against Ulster in the Champions Cup
Bath’s Finn Russell in action against Ulster in the Champions Cup. Photograph: Bob Bradford/CameraSport/Getty Images

It is a subject which has clearly been nagging away at Russell as he settles into family life in north-east Somerset – “I usually drink green tea at night now” – with his partner, Emma, and their one-year-old daughter, Charlie. France was supposed to see Scotland hit new heights; instead they were overpowered by South Africa, picked off by Ireland and failed to progress beyond the pool stages.

Their chief conductor chose to pack up his troubles – “Mainly so I didn’t have to deal with it” – and throw himself straight into the Bath experience with scarcely a break. Given his frayed emotions – “The disappointment and frustration is still there” – he now wonders if he should have taken longer to recharge his mental batteries. “In three months’ time when I come back from the Six Nations it might kick in because I’ve not given myself time to potentially get over it. What made it even more frustrating was the team Scotland have got now and the way we’re playing, which I think is really good. It’s one of the best teams I’ve played in for Scotland. Obviously the pool draw was tough but that’s sport. We still could have done better than we did.”

One further crack at it – “I might have another World Cup in me, I might not” – plus a successful British & Irish Lions tour in 2025 would sooth some of that pain but currently he has only one primary target. Even chilled-out entertainers crave a shiny trophy or two and he has won nothing – aside from Calcutta Cups and neutral admiration – since 2015. “Is the journey enough or is it the silverware that counts?” says Russell, rhetorically. “I’m not sure. It’s quite a hard question to answer just now when I’m still pulling and still trying to achieve. I would love to have won more titles with Racing and Glasgow and with Scotland. But I still think I’ve got enough time to win some.” And if not? “In three to four years’ time that’s when I might start looking back and thinking: ‘If I’d done this or that differently, would it have been a different outcome?’”

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There will certainly be one or two regrets, not least Racing’s last-gasp defeat by Exeter in the 2020 Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate. It was Russell’s looping attempted pass, intercepted by Jack Nowell, that led to Henry Slade’s match-turning try. “That result is still a bit frustrating because the stats suggest it was a game we should have won.” His French experience, even so, helped to mature him. “As a No 10 it was really good for me because it probably grew my overall knowledge and understanding of different parts of the game.” He has also grown more adept at adapting to prevailing conditions. “My outlook on how you should play has changed at times. Instead of just thinking ‘Go fast’ or ‘Play as quick as possible’ I have to think, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right style for today.’”

As and when the midwinter weather improves, though, Bath really could become a force. Strike the right balance and Russell still firmly believes that attack-minded rugby – “I don’t see why England couldn’t do that with the players they have got to choose from” – is the way ahead for the most ambitious teams.

While he still consults hooker Tom Dunn for specialist local knowledge – “I even asked him where I could get rid of my garage door … he said he’d take it and use it for something” – there is no question who runs the on-field Bath & West show.

“I’m very confident in my vision and I back myself to execute whatever I’m trying. I think the boys are starting to understand what I’m trying to do and are looking for chances as well.” Regardless of whether Bath win anything this season, their journey will be worth watching.

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