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What it is really like to face Finn Russell’s attacking game

Finn Russell during the semi-final
Finn Russell takes on Northampton in Saturday's Premiership final, hoping to inspire Bath to their first title for 28 years - David Rogers/Getty Images

Critics of the Premiership often brand it as an overhyped competition, but Finn Russell’s arrival at Bath has realised expectations in irrefutable style.

He has guided his new club to the Premiership final while conjuring customary moments of magic in just about every game. The hype, and his handsome price tag, have been vindicated. Now Northampton Saints represent the last obstacle between him and the Premiership trophy.

There remains a mystique about the 31-year-old Scotland fly-half and what he produces on the pitch, perhaps because of his reputation as a free-spirited personality. Opposition players and coaches, who have examined Russell in a bid to nullify him, all talk about intricate details.

“A lot of it is around his deception,” explains Gus Warr, the Sale Sharks scrum-half who faced Russell and Bath in last Saturday’s semi-final. “You’re constantly looking at the opposition nine and 10 and their body language, whether that is giving anything away. Finn’s biggest thing is that he looks completely disinterested.

“He’ll be looking the wrong way, walking out the back of things. Then he comes back against the grain with a cross-field kick or with other backs playing off him. Another thing is that he never dies with the ball. There were a couple of times in the second half at the weekend where you think you’ve got him and he offloads to keep the attack going.”

Russell offloads when tackled by Sale Sharks
Russell 'never dies with the ball' - David Rogers/Getty Images

Subtle yet deliberate movement, even before a pass arrives, disrupts entire defensive structures. And while many speak of how Russell weighs up risk against reward, he also poses that quandary to rivals.

“Traditionally, you’d get your third defender to be opposite the 10,” says one source who has faced Bath this season. “Russell is always moving across, so, by the time he’s caught the ball, he’s straight opposite your fourth defender. That’s very different to [Danny] Cipriani, [Owen] Farrell or [George] Ford, who are usually dead straight and fix you because they stay square.

“Russell is slightly unconventional and it means that your third defender will look up and see him, look back to watch the pass and then look again and it’s like: ‘Oh, s---. Where’s he gone?’ It creates complete havoc because, often, neither of your two most crucial defenders have a clue who is covering him. You can’t go out-to-in on him, because that’s what he wants; he’s trying to get your fourth defender to come out-to-in and leave a big hole on the outside. But you’ve got to go and get him.

“If you put pressure on him as hard as possible from the inside, he can make mistakes, especially if you get him on the floor with the ball. Handré Pollard, Farrell and Ford will not make errors if they are playing well. Marcus Smith is somewhere in the middle. Russell will make mistakes even if he is playing well… although he’ll have more miraculous, amazing moments.”

‘His kicking game is much more unconventional than any other 10’

Alex Goode knows all about these interventions. In October, having been charged down for an early Saracens try, Russell sent Tom de Glanville clear with an extraordinary offload. Cameras caught Goode puffing out his cheeks as the Bath full-back dotted down. Three and a half years ago, five minutes from the end of a tense Champions Cup final, Russell’s right-footed dink released Virimi Vakatawa before Juan Imhoff went over.

“What was that like?” remembers Goode. “I thought we had done an unbelievable job on him. For 75 minutes, we’d kept him quiet, defused the chips, fielded the kicks. Then he gets one away and that is the difference. The hardest thing is how his kicking game is much more unconventional than any other 10.

“He doesn’t sit in the pocket or give you many cues. He might be running the ball and then decide that he’s going to whack it down-field. That makes it hard because it’s not always an end-over-end punt. It can be a wobbler, a spiral. It’ll be a last-minute decision and the back-field [defenders] aren’t ready. Back there, you’re thinking ‘he’s running it’ and you get flatter. Then, bang, he punches it through and it hits space. It bounces twice and then you’re under pressure.”

Russell kicks from hand against France in a World Cup warm-up
Russell's unorthodox kicking game can catch opponents, who have dealt well with him for 75 minutes, on the hop - ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Goode expects Russell’s arsenal of kicks to be prominent at Twickenham, with Northampton preferring to keep plenty of players in the front line of defence. Sale went to The Rec with those weapons in mind – as well the double-bluff.

“We focused on his attacking kicks,” Warr adds. “[But sometimes] he looks like he’s going to kick it before throwing a flat, cut-out [pass] three defenders wider, where guys who think they have read the chip have already turned slightly. It’s being alive to everything, because he doesn’t give anything away until the very last minute.”

‘Defending against him has to be a whole team effort, or you’re f-----’

Nick Tompkins, the Wales and Saracens centre, has his view. “You get players around the Premiership who move like animals; absolute beasts to tackle. Finn just kind of glides. Every time, he seems to lull defenders on the inside into a false sense of security. He’ll pump the ball, using that as a weapon, and then go through or offload. Guys [defending] on the inside just completely fall asleep. Defending against him has to be a whole team effort, or you’re f-----.”

Only six players – five scrum-halves and Owen Farrell – have struck more kicks from hand than Russell across this Premiership campaign. As the latest Calcutta Cup encounter showed, he bides his time. And does his homework.

“I think his game has adapted quite a bit in the last couple of years,” Goode adds. “What I’m seeing more now, is that he isn’t overplaying his hand as much. He’s still pushing the envelope, but his decision-making over when to go for the big play and when to keep playing the percentages has changed quite a bit.

“Speak to any of the Scotland guys and they will tell you he is someone who does a lot of analysis. Finn seems to establish relationships and a mutual understanding with people. We’ve seen it over the years with Blair Kinghorn, Stuart Hogg, Vakatawa and Huw Jones. His wingers know to be ready for it at all times. Ollie Lawrence now gets on those flat miss-passes like Vakatawa did at Racing when Russell zips it across.

“That’s preparation, talking to those players, going through and showing them what he needs from them and where they need to get to if he does something. In that aspect, I think he’s definitely matured a lot.”

Opposition coaches in the Premiership have been known to review Russell’s performances through tight camera angles. One believes that Bath’s attacking framework is “probably as similar to Leinster or Ireland as you’ll get”, because it hinges on Russell and his incessant communication with runners packed in “dense” shapes around him.

“When the ball is going into contact, he won’t be engaged in that,” says a source. “He is purely looking up and to the outside. It’s a constant dialogue of what’s coming next. By the looks of it, the four or five attackers around his vicinity will know what a call is. Then he has four or five decisions to choose from, maybe six if you count his own running game – a pass to the inside, two on the outside, one out the back, a kick towards space and a run.

“Every phase, he seems to set himself up with multiple options. His foot speed gives him more time, too. He never plays at a sprint. When he’s on the ball, he’s marginally above a walk.

“Him and Marcus Smith, I reckon, are the best two in the world, or at least in the northern hemisphere at seeing something and pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But that will come from everything he’s done beforehand; setting up team-mates and moving off the ball across defenders.”

If and when Russell does confound Saints with a piece of brilliance in the final, know that technical excellence and intuition has laid the foundation.

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