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FEATURE Million-pound man Finn Russell is worth every penny to Bath

Million-pound man Finn Russell is worth every penny to Bath
2 weeks ago

When the crowd erupted and the Bath players embraced after Saturday’s nail-biting Premiership semi-final win over Sale Sharks, the television cameras panned to the ecstatic faces of club owner Bruce Craig and his major sponsor James Dyson, sitting together in one of the corporate boxes at the Recreation Ground.

It was a moment which neatly encapsulated the key partnerships on which success at the Rec is now built. Jon Callard and Andy Robinson were both players the last time the club won the title in 1996, and had been reunited on the coaching staff until Callard’s departure in April. The addition of Lee Blackett [backs/skills] and Richard Blaze [forwards] has complemented Johann van Graan and his long-time confederate JP Ferreira [defence]. The half-back combination of Ben Spencer and Finn Russell have received glowing report cards throughout the season, not least from their head coach.

But it is the partnership between coaching mastermind and chief playmaker which is creating the secret sauce, and the unique taste of rugby life at the Rec. When Van Graan left Munster with Ferreira in tow at the end of the 2022 season, it was far from obvious how a coaching consensus based so squarely on South African principles would flourish in the land of the cavaliers, the playground of Stuart Barnes and Mike Catt and Jeremy Guscott.

When Leinster played Van Graan’s Munstermen for those five years between 2017-2022, it was always grim trench warfare. The Thomond Park outfit kicked obsessively, and scrapped it out to the death at the breakdown even in the Dublin province’s half of the field. The thundering drumroll of kick and maul and scrum might not play too well against the echo of those symphonic harmonies of the past, surely?

When Scotland magician Russell was persuaded to leave the cultured paradise of Hauts-de-Seine for the city of honey-coloured limestone on £1m per season, it did not look like a marriage made in heaven. Russell may have been made to play for Bath, a supercharged Barnes for the professional era, but the mercurial Scot playing for a South African coach in the English Premiership? That looked like a bridge too far.

While Van Graan has been flexible and generous enough to acknowledge a ‘maverick’ skill-set in his number 10, the success of Russell’s move across the Channel was enabled chiefly by his prior experience in France. The demands of playing for Racing 92 prepared him perfectly for his new job in England. With pink bow ties and champagne at half-time in their colourful past, Racing 92 may represent everyone’s idea of rugby romance, but for the 2022-23 season at least, the club preferred to play large swathes of the game without the ball.

The Parisian aristocrats ranked bottom of the league in active time-of-possession and Russell kicked for more metres than any fly-half except Camille Lopez of Aviron Bayonnais, while only Stade Francais’ Joris Segonds slotted more goals than the Scot during the regular season.

Bath Russell comeback
Finn Russell has been a huge hit at Bath as he bids to win only his second major club trophy (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

The swish of the rugby romantic’s blade had therefore already been tempered by a pistol in the pocket and a heavy dose of pragmatism. There was less of the devil-may-care Mousquetaire, and far more of the Cardinal’s cold calculation embedded within Russell when he exchanged the La Défense Arena for the Rec.

Van Graan’s Bath cohorts have reinforced the type of game Russell learned in Paris, with the club ranking second-bottom in active time-of-possession [behind only the hapless Newcastle Falcons], while Russell has kicked for more metres, and made more attempts at goal than any other 10 in the Premiership.

Van Graan’s post-match press conference was instructive. He just could not contain his rapture about Finn Russell, and the boy within the man surfaced euphorically. It took rather longer than usual to recover his monotone ‘it’s a team game’ poise.

“On Finn, on days like this you need your number 10 to shine. How good was George Ford today! How good was Finn Russell today! We are blessed in the Premiership with incredible 10s. [Marcus] Smith to add to that. [Owen] Farrell. [Handre] Pollard. You can mention a few more, but today our 10 came through.

“One day we will write a book about it, but what Finn went through the last few weeks, our media release said ‘significant injury’ and it was a significant injury – but what he and specifically Rory Murray, the head of [our] medical [department], went through to get [him] back onto the pitch, that’s no easy feat.

“From Finn’s side, it’s not about Finn, it’s about the squad and he has made it about the squad and he represents the squad, and that kick represented moments in the season when I picked different teams to go and fight for us as a group. That eight-point buffer was massive.”

It’s been a highly fruitful, if slightly unlikely partnership, one neither party could have imagined themselves entertaining at the start of their careers.

The semi-final began with one errant long pass into no man’s land by the Bath maestro, and a risky kick-pass which could easily have turned into a 14-point reversal.

 

The kick is well-weighted, but because it is travelling all the way from the left 15m line it spends more time in the air, enough to give the Sale full-back an even chance to get to the ball first when it lands. That might have been sufficient for a younger Russell to take a kamikaze attitude to creative risk, but the more mature man gets back on mental track by the most South African of routes – not by throwing another miracle pass, but by doubling up effort in the tackle and leading a ferocious counter-ruck.

 

The same pattern was repeated at the beginning of the second quarter, with Russell kicking a long goal from his own half less than two minutes after fumbling a high kick in the Bath backfield and giving up a penalty to the Sharks.

When things went wrong, redress came soon afterwards, and more often than not, it arrived via the kicking game or through defence. As his half-back partner Spencer observed.

“You’ve probably watched Finn’s highlight reel and you see the crossfield kicks and you see the big, long passes. but underneath all that is a really strong defensive game as well. Some of the tackles and hits he has put in this season have been back-row-esque.”

One of the features of the semi-final was Russell’s ability to reverse momentums, both in his own game and in the match as a whole. That particularly applied at Bath kick-offs, when the Scotland pivot gave big South African lock Cobus Wiese a torrid time.

 

With a designated receiver like Wiese, who can expect to be supported by both a front and rear lifter, the idea is to make the pod move and test its co-ordination within a radius of about five metres in any direction. In this case, Russell’s restart pulls the big South African out to the 5m line and his back boost disappears, allowing the Bath chaser to get first touch. After a fortuitous breakaway by Sale down the right, the man making the tackle on Sharks flanker Sam Dugdale is none other than – you guessed it – Russell. Kicking and defence.

The following two kick-offs inconvenienced Wiese even more.

 

 

The first kick drags the Sale number four in towards the 15m line and the result is a turnover scrum to the home side; the second targets the space between the forward receiver [Wiese] and the wing behind him, and by this time the big man’s confidence was shredded. He did not know whether he was coming or going, catching or leaving.

It is Russell’s excellence in the parts of the game with which he used to feel no natural affinity which is now supporting his creative efforts.

At the first play, Russell gestures the attacker loitering on an in-pass to a wider position, giving Bath an extra man on the wide right. On the second, he’s up off the ground after a hard shot to the ribcage, sprinting 50 metres to hit the line flat just at the spot where the Sharks defence is weakest. Ted Hill and Ben Spencer finish the move neatly with a deserved try on next phase.

Purely in terms of what Finn Russell has brought with him from Paris to the cathedral city, it would have been more fitting, and more symbolic of the synergy between chief playmaker and head coach, if his drop-goal attempt in the 68th minute had gone over from just inside his own half to seal the game. match.

 

There is a new sense of equilibrium and solidarity at the Rec, a new balance in the half-backs, in the profile of the coaching staff, and in the reciprocal admiration between the head coach off the field, and his main game-manager on it.

Whether it is enough to end a long drought, and catapult the West Countrymen to their first Premiership title in 28 years is another matter. For the time being, it is enough to nod [with a smile] at the words of Craig to Dyson up in the heights of the corporate boxes: “I think he [Russell] is worth the money”. Oh yes, every penny.

Comments

30 Comments
J
Jon 15 days ago

Real shame of a game huh (still a ok watch for the neutral in the end though). NH not getting it right like the SH I don’t think 🤞

At least the good guys won and will give the impression to most that NH should embrace further change! Yay for attacking rugby.

M
Mitch 17 days ago

With due respect to Saracens and Sale, this is the final I hoped for; Fin vs Finn at flyhalf with both sides at full strength in front of hopefully a sold out Twickenham in the early summer sunshine. It won’t be as drab as the Tigers vs Sarries final from two years ago, let’s hope for something as thrilling and exciting as the Quinns vs Chiefs final in 2021.

E
Ed the Duck 17 days ago

Have watched his pro career from the beginning with Glasgow and he has further developed and enhanced his skills through his time in France, without doubt. One of his biggest attributes though is his attitude and personality. JVG and the bath players refer to it when they talk about how calm he is and how this disseminates confidence throughout the squad. He has always shrugged off any misses/mishaps with a smile and occasionally this was badly misinterpreted as a laissez faire couldn’t care less outlook. But that always said more about those making the misinformed comments than about FR’s abilities in my book. He is also a ferociously competitive winner and you don’t need to look any further than the fabled half time talk he gave to both Townsend and the team at Twickenham in 2019 to find evidence for that!

That said, much as I would like to see FR and the Bath team win on Saturday, I have a nagging feeling that saints will prevail…

M
Mzilikazi 17 days ago

I watched both semis, the N’Hampton Saracens game live, the Bath Sale game on replay. I thought both games had so much superb rugby played, but would put the first a cut above. The intensity and accuracy of both Nh and Sarc. was unbelievable, both looking to attack, ball in hand, over kicking. Thought Sarc. just made those few mistakes more, that cost them in the end. I saw the second game as one where both Bath and Sale looked to kick a lot more, and there were spells of confused play from both. I feel N’hampton should win the final. But never write anyone off in a decider.

Really fascinated by what you write about Russell and van Graan, Nick. Finn has for sure lifted Bath’s game to new levels this year, given van Graan “fresh legs”….and full credit to him and his coaching team for getting so much out of Finn. I would think, though have not spoken of this directly to any Irish contacts, that van Graan probably jumped before he was pushed at Munster.

I posted after the game last weekend that I thought both Nh. and Saracens would beat the best of our Au Super teams, and probably the best of the NZ teams too. The rugby being played by the top NH teams this year, and for a few years back, really is a dream to watch.

j
john 17 days ago

He is fun to watch. That’s what people come to see. Excitement.

S
Shaylen 17 days ago

Russell is the dream 10. He is physical and can make tackles so isnt a weak link in defence, he is a reliable kicker for posts, his kicking game in open play is accurate and he has good positional sense and a great eye for space. He reads the game extremely well, can break the line possesses decent pace and is a world class distributor. He attacks the line, initiates counterattacks and chooses the right option so often. A world class 10 with a great temperament. The complete player now. He will surely start for the Lions and deserves that role

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