John Haggart squinted through the windscreen, unsure whether to believe what he was seeing.
In the opposite lane, a small motorbike was approaching. It was riding low, weighed down by a driver and a pillion passenger.
“Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s host family had given him a moped to get about Christchurch,” Haggart remembered.
“Sam was driving it, but I could also see Finn Russell hanging off the back of it with one hand.
“I remember thinking, ‘I really hope the Scottish Rugby Union don’t see a picture of this’.”
Haggart was in charge of Russell. As much as anyone was. It was 2013 and Russell, then 20, was in the midst of a three-month stint in New Zealand.
As well as a moped, he and Hidalgo-Clyne were riding the John MacPhail Scholarship – a rugby ‘gap year’ in Canterbury for Scotland’s best young players. The trip was designed to sharpen up skills and shape them up as young men.
Previous recipients included John Barclay, Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray. Each was signed up to a team in Christchurch and billeted with a local family. Hidalgo-Clyne was playing with Burnside. Russell was attached to the Lincoln University team which, along with the Canterbury’s International High Performance Unit, was overseen by Haggart.
It wasn’t Russell’s rugby that struck Haggart first though. As Russell emerged off a day-long red-eye flight, it was his energy that captured the coach.
“He wasn’t immature in any way, but he was a young lad who knew he was out on a adventure and wanted to experience whatever life could offer him,” Haggart said.
“I knew he had trained to be stonemason – it wasn’t a career I knew much about, so that was interesting to me – and he was relaxed about everything. Nothing fazed him.”
Lincoln had not been a force on the Christchurch scene in the previous few seasons. But the environment was perfect for Russell.
Pitched into a dressing room of similarly young players, he relished being a student of rugby and a regular in the student bars.
Back then he wasn’t the most driven athlete, he was enjoying other parts of life, I am sure there were days he turned up a little…tired and couldn’t do his best. But that is all part of the journey of growing up and becoming a man.
John Haggart, Canterbury International High Performance Unit
“I think coming into a uni team really helped Finn,” said Haggart. “He didn’t have to boss around older guys and his relaxed manner gave him an affinity with the students who were there to have fun and enjoy their rugby.
“He was obviously a very good attacking player, he was able to attack the line really well, and he had that impish pop and speed to take opportunities.
“He also had really good vision to put himself, the ball or others into space, that was probably the big part of his game.
“He didn’t want too much info in his head, he wanted to play with a free spirit.
“As a 10 you are going to make some mistakes, but you have to make mistakes to learn. Finn never questioned his ability. And next time he might cut a side open by doing something a little different.
“Back then he wasn’t the most driven athlete, he was enjoying other parts of life, I am sure there were days he turned up a little…tired and couldn’t do his best.
“But that is all part of the journey of growing up and becoming a man.”
Dominic Bird saw Russell at even closer quarters. He was in the second row of that Lincoln side. With Russell, there were, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘expected unexpecteds’; the sudden burst of pace, the dummy and dart, the no-look pass, the poke through, the bomb out wide.
But there were also ‘unexpected unexpecteds’. Bird popped his head of a scrum just in time to catch one.
“We were had a scrum, 10m from our line, and Finn was at first five,” Bird said.
“Everyone obviously expected him to kick. But instead he ran straight, went straight over the top of the defender and made a line break.
“It was the sort of thing you would expect from Ngani Laumape or someone like that. All of us were shocked by this skinny, white Scottish kid bowling over a tackler.
“If he tried that now in the Top 14 or international footy, I think he would cop it. But Finn was a class player even then.”
The thing about Finn was his dancing. For a stonemason from Scotland, he can shuffle like a madman!
Dominic Bird, Racing 92
His fleet feet were confined to the pitch either.
“The thing about Finn was his dancing. For a stonemason from Scotland, he can shuffle like a madman!,” added Bird.
“There is that clip of him dancing on the touchline in a Scotland game [in November 2014’s 41-31 win over Argentina.
“And it was the same in the local pub at our after-match functions, him having us all cracking up.”
Russell’s rugby also pleased the crowd.
As Lincoln made a surprise run to the play-off semi-finals of the Christchurch’s Metro tournament, he scooped the season’s individual honour.
Russell was the emphatic winner of the division’s Most Valuable Player award, voted for by independent observers at every regular-season game.
“I think it was a collection of performances, rather than any one moment, that won him that award,” remembers Haggart.
“No-one knew who he was when he started, so it was all evidence based. Finn had no pedigree, no reputation – he was this new guy on the block. His ability to attack, score points and accuracy of kicking were the fundamentals of being that number one player. It was thoroughly deserved.”
As Russell’s scheduled return to the northern hemisphere approached, Haggart hoped the Scottish Rugby Union might be convinced to extend his south island stay.
His request was turned down. Pre-season with Glasgow called for Russell instead. Without him, Lincoln lost their semi-final. Canterbury, who had been interested in recruiting Russell for their Mitre 10 campaign, were also disappointed.
“Out of respect for the Scottish Rugby Union, offering Finn a contract out here was never an option,” said Haggart.
But, no question, if Finn had come out and said I love New Zealand and I want to stay or if he had met a girl over here or something…New Zealand would have loved to keep Finn. Without a doubt.
John Haggart, Canterbury International High Performance Unit
“The plan was always for him to be here for three months to get some experience and go back a better player with broader horizons.
“But, no question, if Finn had come out and said I love New Zealand and I want to stay or if he had met a girl over here or something…
“New Zealand would have loved to keep Finn. Without a doubt.”
Instead, less than 18 months after Russell had taken a sight-seeing trip to watch New Zealand beating France at AMI Stadium, he was lining up against the All Blacks.
It was his fourth Test. Leading New Zealand was Richie McCaw, with whom a starstruck Russell had posed for a picture during his time in Christchurch. Opposite him at 10, was Dan Carter.
Russell shone. He headed to the bench on 60 minutes, with an assured, accomplished performance behind him and, above, the Murrayfield scoreboard showing New Zealand leading by a single point.
In the build-up to the match, Russell had been asked about his time in Christchurch.
“It was a really good standard of rugby for a non-professional league,” Russell said.
“It was the way they played, expansive rugby and a really, fast flowing game.
“Three months over there really brought me on and gave me that extra bit of confidence.”
Afterwards, Russell caught up with old team-mate Bird, who was winning his second cap for the opposition.
But Lincoln was not to be the last time they played together.
When Bird moved to Racing 92 in 2018, there was a familiar, grinning face in the dressing room. Russell had been signed to sparkle in the City of Lights.
“It was gold to turn up and have that connection in Paris and then build on that,” said Bird. “I am great mates with Finn and treasure the time playing with him, he is a class athlete and a good man.”
On the Top 14 circuit, they ran into another Lincoln alumni with former Leicester back row Jordan Taufua turning out for Lyon. A couple of former Lincoln team-mates came out to visit Bird and Russell in Paris as well.
Bird, like Russell, had a gap year. He headed in the opposite direction, leaving New Zealand for the United Kingdom as an 18-year-old. He played for Esher’s development side before working at a kids’ holiday camp in Shropshire.
I don’t know if a gap year is possible in this day and age, kids may find it a bit tougher, but it was gold for me; play a few games with a good group of lads, live it up, let your hair down and get the life experience you need before sinking your teeth into a pro career.
Does he think those stints, far from home, a prescribed development pathway and any comfort zone, help players as people?
“100%,” Bird replied. “At that age you are still so fresh, you are only transitioning from being a kid to an adult
I don’t know if a gap year is possible in this day and age, kids may find it a bit tougher, but it was gold for me; play a few games with a good group of lads, live it up, let your hair down and get the life experience you need before sinking your teeth into a pro career.”
And, as Russell proves, you can still mix in a little pleasure at the business end of rugby.
“I remember three or four years ago, getting a call at around 11:00am here in Christchurch,” said Haggart.
“It was Finn. And it must have been pretty late over in the UK. He was in a car. The driver was sober. Finn wasn’t.
“Finn was trying to get me to convince this guy, who I knew, to drop off the car and get out on the lash with him.”
From Christchurch to Glasgow to Paris, on the back of a moped, in the front of a car, in the Test match box seat, Russell’s appetite for adventure remains.
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