Earlier this summer, Racing 92’s new signing Simon Zebo posted a video of his team-mates enjoying a meal and a drink after a crushing pre-season victory in Georgia. The camera panned along the restaurant pew from right to left, taking in one Polynesian colossus after the next, gliding over men of impossibly large physical proportions.
At the end of the row of giants, giggling like a tipsy teenager as he toyed with an empty wine glass, sat a broad-grinned, pale-skinned Scotsman. A man who, as Zebo’s guffaw confirmed, looked so hilariously out of place among all the beef.
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In joining the Parisian titans from Glasgow Warriors, the brilliant fly-half is no longer under Scottish Rugby’s watchful eye, where his load could be monitored and his scheduled tailored with the biggest club and international fixtures in mind.
The Top 14 is a bruising league, and for all its world-class players, it can degenerate into a bit of a grind as teams bludgeon their way through a mountain of rugby in pursuit of a spot in the play-offs. It houses a ton of the sport’s galacticos and those superstars are expected to play to justify their huge wage packets. Russell is said to be earning around £800,000 each season of his three-year contract – a massive hike on what he would have pocketed back home.
He was signed in part to replace the great Dan Carter and he will probably have to play a lot more rugby a lot quicker than he expected since main rival for the 10 jersey Pat Lambie is long-term injured.
Losing Russell would strike a cataclysmic blow to Gregor Townsend and the national team. In every other position, under Vern Cotter then under Townsend, Scotland have developed an array of Test-ready options.
At fly-half, an injury to Russell would leave young Adam Hastings, experienced Ruaridh Jackson and Pete Horne, predominantly a centre, as the recognised deputies. All are fine rugby players. None can do what Russell does.
“[Townsend] wanted me to stay but we spoke about why I wanted to leave and what I was going to get from it as a player. I knew I was going to go at some point and he probably knew it as well,” Russell told the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday”.
“I’m out with the control of the SRU and I knew that I could potentially be playing every week, especially with Pat injured.
“Speaking to the coaches, they say they know a player can’t be at their best week in, week out if they’re asked to go, go, go. That’s almost a thing of the past, playing boys into the ground.”
So, he will probably have to play more games and as a result face a greater risk of injury, but in every other sense, Russell has found a perfect new home.
For starters, Paris is none too shabby a place for a wealthy 25-year-old, but more importantly, Racing is a club where the Scot’s box-office rugby will be cherished. Where his showmanship will be staged at an incredible stadium that feels like an Ibiza super-club, filled with fans already toting Finn Russell cut-out face masks.
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A priceless picture taken at the Paris La Defense Arena by Scottish photographer Craig Watson this weekend showed a female Racing fan clutching one such mask. The man next to her, wearing the look of someone who has just watched their accumulator die with a 97th-minute goal, could never have imagined competing with a pasty stonemason from Stirlingshire for her affections.
The impish Russell doesn’t have the look of a modern player. You don’t marvel at his muscles but perhaps in this age of monsters that’s no bad thing. What are you in awe of is his dazzling gamut of skills and his audacity in trusting them in the most telling moments.
You can point out any number of magnificent acts of sorcery from his highlights reel but in doing so you are inevitably drawn back to The Pass. Remember The Pass? The glorious, swooping parabola that bamboozled the English defence and sent Huw Jones thundering off into open prairie? If Danny Cipriani’s wrists are gold, then Russell’s are laced with platinum.
It was a majestic slice of skill, but more striking than the act itself was the fact that Russell was unleashing it on his own 22, in the throes of a massive Calcutta Cup showdown, after two sloppy performances against Wales and France for which he had been roundly pilloried.
After complaining that “my hair’s all over the place” as he arrived before a packed post-match media conference, Russell was asked what gave him the confidence to attempt such precarious feats.
“Nah, they’re not risky,” he laughed. “I know what’s happening.”
It was Russell in microcosm.
The biggest and most frequent criticism of the Scot is that he can’t be trusted to deliver this sort of greatness every week. That he is prone to flakiness and kamikaze flashes and that until he can consistently run a game at the highest level with the ruthlessness of, say, Jonny Sexton, Scotland won’t win things.
When managing the outrageously-talented but hopelessly wayward Paul Gascoigne at Rangers, Walter Smith recalls an exchange with the comedian Billy Connolly, who had asked how Smith was faring in keeping “Gazza” on the straight and narrow.
“Remember, you always have to live with the genius,” Connolly said. “The genius will not live with you.”
It is true that Russell can infuriate, but he remains utterly indomitable in the face of adversity or poor form. His love for the spotlight, ability to shrug off errors and remain bold enough to back his skills makes him.
For Glasgow, he was imperious against his new club in the 2016 European Champions Cup, outshining the legend Carter, his opposite man. He was phenomenal too in Warriors’ run to the Pro12 title the year before, in their pulsating win over the Cheetahs in high-altitude Bloemfontein last season and in that Calcutta Cup triumph in March where The Pass was born.
Playing for Racing should present him with more opportunities to flourish but it should also foster those game-management skills without unduly blunting his rugby instincts.
In his first game, Russell ran in two tries and racked up 20 points in a fine away win over Toulon. In his second, on Sunday, Greig Laidlaw’s Clermont came to Paris and gave Racing a stuffing. Townsend, who spent five years of his playing career in France, was there to watch his half-backs duel.
He too was once a maverick Scot in these parts and he will make the perfect sounding board for Russell on his Top 14 journey. Whatever happens, the adventures of Scotland’s great showman in France promise to be one hell of a ride.
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