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The enigma of Finn Russell continues after his Cardiff spiral

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Stu Forster/Getty Images and Ian Cook - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Everyone knows what Scotland’s star flyhalf Finn Russell can do on his day. They also know what happens on his off ones.

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The enigma that is Finn Russell showed up again in Cardiff as Scotland fell to Wales, led by Dan Biggar, who is almost the antithesis of his Scottish opposite.

Rarely does Biggar make colossal errors, he plays with poise and control that unfashionably guides his side to gritty wins. When a clutch kick is needed, Biggar is one of the best kickers in the world. His reliability in the big moments has been a defining aspect of his career.

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RugbyPass Offload | Episode 20
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Russell is the riverboat gambler with X-factor who either wows or massively disappoints, and it has been more of the latter in recent times despite his incredible showing in the third British & Irish Lions test.

It is seemingly the unsolvable equation that Scotland need to find an answer for in order to get over the hump. Sometimes you need your flyhalf to win the game, sometimes you need them to not lose it. This is what Russell has a problem with.

Since returning to the Scotland set-up following his falling out with Gregor Townsend in 2020, Russell has not found the type of magic that was produced in the win over England in 2018 and the stunning comeback in the 38-all draw at Twickenham in 2019.

To the contrary, Scotland have won at times despite the efforts of their flyhalf.

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In the historic 11-6 win over England at Twickenham last year, with 58 seconds remaining Russell sat in the pocket and opted to attempt a drop goal under no advantage.

With a five-point lead, the kick would have sealed the match with a two-score lead. However, with the clock winding down, the safer bet would have been for the forwards to continue the pick and goes, drain the clock and then kick it out.

Scotland had the upper hand with possession, territory and the clock in their favour. There was no need to give England the ball back.

Under pressure, Russell bailed on his natural leg and attempted to make the drop goal from his left foot before being charged down by the oncoming England rush.

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By sheer luck, Stuart Hogg was standing 10 metres further back to dive on the rebound to avoid disaster. Henry Slade was right there to either pick it up or hack it further downfield and snatch an improbable English win with a length of the field try the other way. There was not a purple jersey in sight to prevent disaster other than Hogg.

Scotland lost so many metres on that play that they kicked for territory on the next phase and gave England another possession to try and break Scottish hearts.

Scotland’s chances of catastrophically blowing that game in the last minute increased dramatically in those final moments with what would have gone down as one of the all-time braindead moments.

In the 25-24 loss to Wales at Murrayfield last year, Scotland needed just three points to win but played like they were after a try.

In the final 10 minutes, with possession and making headway into Wales’ half, Russell kicked a dinky grubber in behind, giving away possession on the first chance.

With four minutes remaining, Russell connected with Hogg on an inside break up the middle of the park where Scotland got to within 30 metres of the Welsh line.

A wild pass from a reserve prop cost Scotland 10 metres when none of the game drivers were there to take control and manage the situation.

After 11 phases from about 40 metres out, halfback Ali Price kicked to plug the corner. Wales wing Rees-Zammit covered the kick and hoofed it down inside Scotland’s 22, forcing them back and asking them to go 80 metres in the final two minutes.

On that last hurrah from deep, a wide pass from Russell was intercepted by Nick Tomkins, who almost scored a try to end the game if it weren’t for a fortuitous ruck penalty in Scotland’s favour on the five metre line.

The game management was non-existent when Scotland just need to maintain possession and try to draw a kickable penalty to win the game. They lost over 70 metres through inept decisions.

Against France last year, Russell was red-carded with possession for an elbow to the face of the tackler, when Scotland were five metres away from snatching the lead back.

It was a pivotal moment that again dramatically reduced his team’s chances of winning.

With time up on the clock, it was reserve flyhalf Adam Hastings who made the play to pull off an historic win.

After an incredible 19 phases of possession, Hastings finally got the ball and pulled the trigger with a long ball over the top to Duhan van der Merwe for the game-winning try in the 85th minute.

Would Scotland have managed 19 phases if Russell was on the field? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe an all or nothing grubber, chip kick or any other roll of dice may have been taken before the right opportunity presented itself.

All of this has to be revisited to understand that Russell’s latest showing in Cardiff is on trend with his form since returning to the Scottish national side. Since coming back more often than not, the bad has outweighed the good.

After taking ascendency in the arm wrestle to start the second half and earn a 17-14 lead, Russell fielded the restart and tried to transition to the left foot under pressure to make the clearance before a phase was made.

His wrong foot kick was charged and regathered by Wales, who then were hot on attack inside the 22. The pressure was put back on Scotland immediately after taking the lead.

After a period of kick tennis that forced a Welsh goal line drop out after a brilliant long kick by Russell, his first thought was to then try a long range drop goal directly from the restart from 44-metres out on the angle.

His attempt fell well short and gave Wales an easy reprieve after Scotland had done the hard work to get an attacking possession in their half from which to put the Welsh defence under pressure.

After that pivotal swing, Wales took control and worked their way down to almost score through Alex Cuthbert and settled for a penalty to tie the scores 17-all.

Too often Russell releases pressure for the opposition, instead of helping his side apply it. And at the worst of times, can put his own side under enormous pressure. In test rugby, that matters a lot.

The yellow card for the one-handed intercept attempt was one of those times that put his side under a heap of pressure. The rules are the rules and players know the risk. It was a calculated play and it didn’t come off. But was the reward worth it? Would Finn Russell have gone 95-metres in a foot race against Louis Rees-Zammit in cover?

The decision to make that attempt at that point in time after already coming up with so many momentum swings for Wales was indicative of the spiral he was on. Russell’s performance slowly degraded into a net negative impact over the second half despite a nice try assist in the first.

On the other side, Dan Biggar didn’t put his side under pressure unnecessarily. He didn’t squander quality possession in advantageous positions and let Scotland off the hook easily. He didn’t make execution errors like kicking restarts out on the full. He was patient, built Wales’ attack at the right moments and turned that into points.

Dan Biggar on one leg gave his side a net positive output and won the game while Russell was sitting in the sin bin when his side needed him most.

When Adam Hastings stepped into the role in 2020 he gave Scotland what Russell hasn’t. Stability, reliability, as well as clinical execution.

Hastings also made great plays in attack and his partnership with Hogg flourished as the two built a playmaking tandem that worked. Yet it came with far less downside.

Hastings could defer to Hogg and vice versa and neither seemed to step on each other’s toes as first receiving options. Both were critical in laying the foundation for the upset win over France at Murrayfield in 2020 with fantastic attacking play.

You can understand picking Russell on his ability alone and backing the mercurial talent to produce, but, by discarding Adam Hastings, Scotland don’t have another genuine option to go to.

If Russell is having one of ‘those’ days, they have no recovery option, one they could have used in Cardiff.

The third Lions test in South Africa was Russell’s best international showing in three years. Other than that, there hasn’t been much to write home about.

If Russell could master the skill of patience, he could become the best flyhalf in the world. In Cardiff it seemed he didn’t comprehend the concept and his lack of it was as deadly for Scotland as it was for the opposition.

You can’t build pressure in attack without patience. You can’t manage risk effectively without patience.

For Townsend, he’s gone all-in on Russell just when Hastings looked like the better option for the team. This faith in Russell has proven to be misguided so far at a time when Scotland have the team to make a real run at the title.

It’s hard enough to get to that pinnacle, they don’t need to overcome the play of their flyhalf too. He can’t be a net negative as a key figure in the team in such a pivotal position.

Scotland don’t need Finn Russell to be the reason why they win anymore, they just need him not to be the reason why they lose.

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