Racing Ahead | Finn Russell
When Finn Russell said au revoir to Glasgow Warriors and bonjour to Racing 92 last summer, there was no doubt that certain aspects of his life were going to change.
Trading the west coast of Scotland for Paris meant adapting to a new language, food, weather and culture, not to mention unfamiliar teammates, coaches and stadiums. It’s a credit to the Scotland stand-off that despite it all he remains very much himself.
“I don’t think I’ve had to change at all,” he said. “The way that we’re playing and the lifestyle and culture at the club suit me, it’s a really good place to be. It is different, but I’m getting the challenge I was looking for and that’s the reason I left. I’m loving it and I think it has been the right decision for me.”
Russell made his debut for Racing 92 in August and he did it in style, opening his try-scoring account against Toulon and contributing 20 points to the 25-9 win. He’s been playing with confidence and has racked up 97 points in the Top 14 (not too far behind Greig Laidlaw’s 118 points) as well as helping the French side reach the Heineken Champions Cup quarter finals.
“At Racing we play a very open style of rugby and for me it’s good fun playing like that and it’s good fun to watch,” he said. “It suits me and the way I want to play.”
There are clearly no regrets for Russell in terms of his rugby, but he does say that leaving family and friends behind was tough. For someone who was used to always having team-mates and friends around to socialise with, it’s taken a while to get used to flying solo.
“When I lived in Glasgow I think it took it for granted that I could text a few of the boys or my sister of brother and we’d go out and get food or something,” he said. “In my first six months here I never felt lonely, but it was a big difference. But I’ve settled into the team really well now and they all speak good English so that has helped a lot.”
One teammate who Russell has struck up a close friendship with is former Munster and Ireland player Simon Zebo. The winger also joined Racing last summer and the two players were initially based in the same hotel while they found their feet. They now live just a couple of streets apart and seem to relish playing creative rugby together on the pitch.
“I met him the first or second day I got over to Paris,” Russell said. “Being the new guys at a club and being foreigners we were both in the same situation. So at the start we’d always share lifts in and out of training and if we had nights off at the weekend we’d go out for dinner and our girlfriends get on really well. We’ve got a really good relationship both on the field and off the field.”
He’s writing a new chapter in his club career and back in Scotland, Russell is keen to bring that experience to the national team. With 41 caps to his name, this is his fifth Six Nations tournament. His first try in professional rugby actually came when he crossed the line in the final game of the 2015 Championship, against Ireland, at BT Murrayfield.
Russell says that confidence within the national side has grown in recent years and he is happy to take on more of a leadership role in the squad.
“There’s a bit more responsibility but also at the same time I’ve got more confidence - with 40 caps you’re one of the more established players,” he said. “But I’m still very chilled out and relaxed and I might go about it a different way to Greig or Hoggy or Ryan. Part of it is helping out the young guys, so for me it might be helping Adam Hastings or for Hoggy it might be Darcy Graham or Blair Kinghorn. I’m only 26 but I’ve played quite a lot of rugby already.”
Russell started in all five of last year’s Six Nations Tests and played a starring role in Scotland's win against England; making a pass that was the starting point for Sean Maitland’s try and which will be forever known as “that pass”, as well as picking up the Man of the Match award. He describes the game as the “highlight of the last Six Nations and probably my career as a Scotland player.” He says he was proud of the three wins in last year’s tournament but feels that there are still things the team can work on.
“It does help having experience, I think you get a better understanding of the tournament, and I suppose it’s similar to Europe - the more that I’ve played in European games the more you realise that every week is like a final, it’s knock-out rugby,” he said.
“There are no easy games in the tournament now either - the standard of the tournament has gone up over the last four years that I’ve been involved and that’s how rugby is going these days, it’s harder to win games and at this level and it’s so important to get off to a good start.”
No matter what game he’s playing in, you can bet Russell will have a smile on his face at some point in the proceedings. His relaxed attitude has prompted some suggestions that he’s not serious enough about the game, but that’s not the way he sees it.
“People think it’s immature or the way I play is rash or ‘high risk, high reward’, but for me it’s how I’ve always played,” he said. “I think since I moved to Racing and we’re playing well and scoring points and winning games, everyone’s now thinking it’s great, but it’s the same rugby that I’ve been playing all my life. I still like to have a laugh and have a joke so that’s not changed. I smile because I enjoy myself and have fun while I play.”
He says that he’s looking forward to the challenge the Six Nations presents and for the team to show what they can do against tough opposition.
“I think as a group we’re good enough to beat anyone in the Six Nations when we play well, but we need to be at our best,” he said. “When it comes to big games, especially internationals like the Six Nations, that’s when you find out how good you actually are as a player.”