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Finn Russell: 'I’ve got no excuses now'

By David Ferguson
Finn Russell poses for photographs during the squad announcement prior to the Rugby World Cup on August 16, 2023 in South Queensferry, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Those closest to Scotland’s talismanic stand-off Finn Russell might suggest it is a dangerous place to go, but the new Bath signing indulged journalists this week by allowing them a few minutes inside his head.

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There are many in rugby who would dearly love to know what goes on in the Scot’s brain, such is the variety of ideas and skills with which he lights up every 80 minutes. He has developed a reputation as one of the most laid-back characters in the sport, and any attempts to prick that demeanour, on and off the pitch, are invariably met with a widening smile or a wink. Coaches who have worked with him from childhood will tell you one constant has been his ability to shrug off a mistake, and they marvel still at how a kick out on the full, a missed easy penalty, slipped tackle or interception has no effect on his ambition to attack and attempt risky plays. They also reveal that he can be very intense, thoughtful, but incessant with hatching tactics or plans, when away from the cameras and in rugby mode.

He admitted this week that that has taken its toll. A tough year following his British and Irish Lions tour in 2021 ended with form struggles, off-field issues, losing his Scotland place and spending much of 2022 unsure he wanted to play for his country again. He has since spoken of alcohol as being a too-regular and ill-advised escape from the rugby intensity, but if that sparked some of his battles it was more a symptom than a cause. The root of it appears to have been little rest for his brain.

Now, with a near nine-month-old daughter, he feels he has matured and, looking ahead to the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, that his mind is in a healthier place than in previous years.

“It is, much better,” he said, “and rest is a big part of it. That [2021-22] year after the Lions tour was tough. We’d had a long season, and then the Lions came on top of it, and then I had three-and-a-half weeks off before I was back playing, which obviously wasn’t that long. Even after that, I don’t think I got a week’s holiday until April, after the Six Nations. Normally, you get one around November and then at the Six Nations, but I just went right through until April so, as demanding as the season before was, to only have three weeks off and then be back playing again was tough. I think it had a knock-on effect for that whole season and I never really managed to get back into it.”

No coincidence then that that was when he turned to more late nights with a few drinks, fell out with Scotland coaches and disappeared from the squad. We talk a lot about concussion and the need to protect the brain physically, but Russell’s experience is a lesson in how much rugby has also to consider how it protects relatively young men and women psychologically from broadcast-led demands for more action.

This year has seen Russell refreshed and not only back in the squad. He captained Scotland impressively in the win over France at Murrayfield this month. Rest, he insists, was the key.

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Finn Russell
As ever, Scottish hopes will rest on the shoulders of the mercurial Finn Russell (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images)

“Last summer, I got five weeks off, so it was nice to chill out and get some time away from it. And this season, I had a full four weeks at the end which was nice. With five weeks off then three weeks of pre-season it means it’s eight weeks without games whereas after the Lions tour I had three weekends off and then it was back to playing, which isn’t long.

“It’s more the mental side that tires me. Physically, I wasn’t in my best shape in 21-22, but I think that was more a reflection of where I was. I wasn’t down, I was just tired and I think that had a knock-on effect.

“If I’m mentally fresh and ready I’ll have a better game. As a 10 you’ve got to think your way through it and plan your way through the game, but if you’re physically not there you can’t be quite where you want to be and you’re slow and sluggish. It goes hand in hand, I think. But now I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fit. Mentally, I’m feeling good so I’ve got no excuses now!”

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Asked if coaches under-estimate the mental load on players, particularly key decision-makers, in the increasingly intense tiers of the modern game, Russell said: “It depends coach to coach, but it is becoming more of a thing – giving boys time off when they need it, and for coaches to understand that players need it, and when they need it. But there’s no point in leaving it too long and you burn them out, because it’s tough to get them back – you’re better giving them time before you seen them burnt out and then they’ll be able to keep going.

“I remember the Saracens game, in the [European] semi-final with Racing. We ended up beating them but after the game I was so drained from having to think my way through it, analysing them as we went on and trying to find a way to break them down and attack. Physically, I wasn’t that tired but mentally I was so drained. I would think it’s a different fatigue for scrummagers compared to a 10 – different ways of using your energy – but it is something that will probably get looked into.

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“I don’t know how long the English boys are going to get off after the World Cup but the Scottish boys will probably get three or four weeks off. For me at Bath, I don’t how long it’s going to be – two weeks maybe? I’m not sure.

“In France, it’s different. There are 14 teams so there are a lot of [league] games as well as European ones. Going to the Premiership after the World Cup will be different because there are ten teams in it now so that’s some games fewer. That’ll be different for me and at this stage in my career it’s probably a good thing having a few less games to play.”

Looking ahead to his third World Cup, Russell’s freshness has made him delighted to take on greater responsibility in Scotland’s bid to avoid the below-par tournament experienced in Japan.

“It is different this time. I was 26 going into the last World Cup, turning 27, whereas this time I’ll be one of the older guys, one of the most experienced guys. It’s a different responsibility, a different role for me to play at this World Cup, albeit on the pitch it will be the exact same.

“In the 2015 World Cup we got out the group and we should have beaten Australia in that quarter-final. At the last World Cup we didn’t perform at our best and we didn’t get out of the group stage. Having those two experiences will hopefully help me, but also the experience I’ve got will help the boys and the team.”

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Excitement writ large on his face at the prospect of returning to France, where he revelled in Racing 92’s glitter-ball approach to selling the game, Russell added: “France was brilliant and I’m looking forward to a World Cup there because the atmosphere will be amazing.

“As a player, you adapt and you grow and you have different experiences; you get to understand a different culture, their style of play, how the players are. That’ll help me going into this World Cup but also playing Latin teams in the future, and what they’ll be like emotionally, what they’ll be like in games, different momentum swings and how their mentality will be.

“But also just as a guy, being out my comfort zone quite a lot of the time over in France, having to figure things out was really good for me. And obviously we had our little girl over there so that’s made me have to change a little bit, I think for the better.”

Matured, rested and more settled in the mind, Russell certainly believes that he is in prime shape to spearhead Scotland’s mission to cause upsets in the 10th Rugby World Cup.

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