Finn Russell cameo in win against Georgia reminds Scotland and British Lions of his brilliance

Richard Bath
·6 min read
Now off the naughty step Finn Russell is back in the Scotland side - PA
Now off the naughty step Finn Russell is back in the Scotland side - PA

There are many reasons to rue the lack of fans at rugby Tests, but one is surely the fans’ reaction to players when they come on or off.  On Friday evening it would have been interesting – delicious even – to gauge the Murrayfield faithful’s collective response in the 54th minute to Gregor Townsend’s decision to pitch Finn Russell into the fray in Scotland’s crushing 48-7 win over Georgia.

It was the fly-half’s first outing in a Scotland shirt since the now infamous spat with Townsend which saw Russell flounce out of the squad and spend the Six Nations on the naughty step.

The Scotland coach is a notoriously stubborn taskmaster, who once left Stuart Hogg out of the Glasgow team for a whole year, including the club’s first Pro12 final, to teach him some humility, so his stance in Russell was no surprise. Yet the Racing 92 playmaker is arguably the best No.10 in Europe, and Townsend, Scotland and the British and Irish Lions desperately need him back.

So when Russell came off the bench for the first time in his career, with just under half an hour remaining to win his 50th cap, it was surely a cause for celebration. Just how much immediately became clear as Russell galvanised what had been an enthusiastic attack lacking in guile. 

Suddenly Scotland were breaching Georgia’s defences at will.

Duhan van der Merwe of Scotland makes a break to score his sides 5th try after being fed a pass from Finn Russell during their side's 45-7 win over Georgia - GETTY IMAGES
Duhan van der Merwe of Scotland makes a break to score his sides 5th try after being fed a pass from Finn Russell during their side's 45-7 win over Georgia - GETTY IMAGES

In the 54 minutes before Russell’s arrival, Scotland scored four tries, three of them through relentless forward power. In the last 26 minutes, with Russell at the helm against a tiring Georgia defence, Scotland scored another four, the last three going to backs. His cute inside pass to put Duhan van der Merwe into space and his astute kick for Blair Kinghorn both led directly to tries that showcased Russell’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit space.

“I said to the boys at half-time that if we get two quick passes we can get them out wide,” Russell said. “So when I came on and the game was more open, it was two quick passes and get it to the width. It was on, so it worked out.”

During his exile from Scotland, Russell has been imperious for Racing, and he seamlessly transferred that form to a chilly Murrayfield. While he was clearly dubious about Townsend’s contention that he has become a better player since the World Cup, he did concede that his time at Racing has sharpened his skills.

“I’ve always had a kicking game and a passing game, so I think I’m still at the same level,” he said. “But at Racing I’ve had a lot of practice at throwing long passes to Virimi [Vakatawa] all season. My game’s the same, it’s just maybe developing a bit more accuracy.

“I want to run a little bit more, but sometimes it works just to move the ball wide, especially when we had chances in the first and second half that we maybe didn’t finish. But we still created that space and just getting the ball wide to the dangermen still works, even at international level. It’s not something I’ve focused on and worked hard on, it’s just how I’m playing.”

Russell’s impatience to reconnect with what he views as an underrated Scottish back division was palpable. Although the home forwards dominated this game, he believes that Scotland have the potential to beat anyone, not least Wales in Llanelli on Saturday.

“The last few years, our backs have been outstanding, and now we’ve got threats all over the field,” he said. “At half-time, I said, ‘Let’s get the ball into Blair’s hands, Harris’ hands and the wingers’ hands early. Give them time on the ball and let them take their opposite man on one-on-one’.

Russell has been in brilliant form for Racing and become, for many, the best No.10 in Europe - GETTY IMAGES
Russell has been in brilliant form for Racing and become, for many, the best No.10 in Europe - GETTY IMAGES

“We have such dangerous backs and the width to take them on when the ball gets out there. But hats off to the forwards, they were outstanding, they took Georgia on up front, which allowed us to play that wide rugby.”

An interesting aspect of Russell’s return was that he came on for James Lang, with Adam Hastings moving to inside centre. Hastings and Russell remain good friends after their time together at Glasgow, and the Racing man has been at pains not just to dispel any notion that he is too big for his boots, but that there is any rivalry between Scotland’s No.10s.

“Personally, I wasn’t going out to show anything or to do too much, I was just trying to play my game,” he said. “It’s not for me to decide who plays 10, 12 or who’s in the 23. I just went out there to have some fun, and that’s why I’m smiling and looking like I’m enjoying it. I’m not going out there to say, ‘It’s me against Hasto’ – it’s a team game and I’m going to support him whether he’s starting, at 12 or on the bench. I’m going to try to help him as much as possible no matter what.”

Russell would never say as much, but as he reflected on his 50th cap there was a sense of muted contrition for a needless conflagration with Townsend. Humility seemed to be the byword.

“When I came back into the Scotland camp there was no banter, none of that,” he said. “I just took a step back. I didn’t want to come in and say, ‘Let’s do this or do that’. Just to play for your country, it is like having a family of your own. Fraz [Brown] was around when I won my first cap, and I won my first cap at the same time as Blair Cowan [v United States in Houston in June 2014]. 

“These are guys I started my professional career with, my Scotland career with, so it’s good to have them around. They’re your mates. You make such close friends that we’re almost brothers when we play together.”