From Bridge of Allan to the British and Irish Lions

by Craig Wright

As weekends go, Finn Russell will not have had many better in his young life so far.

The 24-year-old played a starring role in Scotland’s 24-19 victory over Australia on Saturday morning, before receiving a call-up to join the British and Irish Lions squad in New Zealand ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with Super Rugby side the Chiefs.

With many seasoned observers counting Russell as amongst the most unlucky to have missed out on the original touring party, the Lions nod is the latest high point in the Glasgow Warrior’s career to date.

In 2015, following a season which had seen Russell help his side to the Guinness Pro12 title, as well as play a starring role in Scotland’s run to a Rugby World Cup quarter-final, the Bridge of Allan native took the time to talk to Brig.

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Russell scores in Scotland’s 24-19 victory over Australia. Credit: The Scotsman

You’ve recently returned from your first senior Rugby World Cup. How did you find the whole experience?

I thought it was a brilliant experience. I never knew what to expect to be honest, going into the World Cup, but it was good having it so close to home [the tournament was held in England] so my family could come down.

You got all that side of it, but at the same time you’re far enough away that you’re in camp for the tournament. I thought the entire experience was great.

Scotland were one of the last teams to make their entrance into the tournament. How did you prepare for the Japan match whilst the tournament was going on around you?

We got down to Gloucester (venue for Scotland’s opening match) the week before the game, so after watching all the games it felt like it was dragging on a bit. You know, you’re raring to go whilst other teams are out there playing.

I think everyone just got on with it – we knew we had to wait, which was a bit frustrating because you just wanted to get into it, but it wasn’t too bad. The golf course at the hotel was pretty good!

Despite the way in which Scotland went out of the competition, you must be fairly positive going forward into the 6 Nations and 2019 World Cup?

I was obviously gutted about the decision (Scotland were wrongly penalised for offside, allowing Australia to kick the winning points), and the way we were put out was frustrating. However, the way I look back on it is that if he (referee Craig Joubert) makes that decision 20 minutes earlier, no-one would’ve said anything about it. It was just that it happened at that stage in the game, affecting the outcome.

You can’t blame the ref for the rest of the game, though. These things happen in sport, so I’ve been able to move on quite quickly. It’s been good to get back to Glasgow and move on with things quickly. Looking forward to the Six Nations, I think we’ve got England first up, so we can kick on from the World Cup into that game.

Scotland v United States of America - IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool B

The fly-half in action at RWC 2015. Credit: Japan Times

You started your rugby career at Stirling County in the youth and Colts sections. Were you always aiming for the level you’re at now, or were you simply focused on making Stirling County 1sts?

When you’re younger, you always want to play professional rugby. However, I broke my wrist playing at under-18s, then never got called up for the under-20s. I was playing for Stirling County 2nds and trying to get a game for the 1sts, but didn’t manage it.

I moved to Falkirk to give it one last chance and see what happened, but I mainly just went there to enjoy my rugby. It just took the right person watching the right game, so I guess I was lucky the way it worked out. It was really only after under-18s that I really thought about professional rugby as a career – I was just thinking ‘I’ll be a stonemason, and that’ll be me’.

You mentioned that you’d once been a stonemason. Do you think that, having spent that period of time away from rugby, you have a greater appreciation for playing professionally than you would have had otherwise?

Back in the summer – when it was sunny! – I was on the pitch thinking how lucky I was. It’s hard to believe that this is my job. I kick a ball bout for a couple of hours and that’s me, as opposed to slogging away on the yard all day.

I’m just grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and the luck I’ve experienced. I see my mates and my brother at university, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity I have to play professionally.

How much did the MacPhail Scholarship (an annual programme for which two young Scottish players are sent to New Zealand for a year) helped you improve your game?

That was brilliant for me. Being 19 and just playing at under-20s for Falkirk, to be able to play consistently at a higher standard and do a lot of individual skills work was brilliant. I came back with a fair bit of confidence knowing that I could play with some of the best in the world, and came back eager to fight for a game at Glasgow.

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A fresh-faced Russell back in 2013. Credit: Glasgow Warriors

You’re known as a pretty relaxed character in your rugby. How do you remain calm and composed under pressure?

I think for me, being relaxed is kind of who I am. I’ll talk to my family before every game, no matter who I’m playing for. If it’s a home game for Glasgow, I’ll try and see them for a coffee before the game. If it’s away, they’ll often follow us to wherever we’re playing.

I haven’t changed that routine since under-18s, so in terms of staying relaxed, I just treat each game as just another game of rugby. I think I’m just naturally chilled out. Sometimes it works, other times it’s not the best, but I think everyone just has their own ways to react to pressure.

How has having Gregor Townsend as your coach helped you in your game?

Having Gregor here is brilliant for me. He’s played for the British Lions and Scotland in my position, so even though he’s the coach and not my mentor, he’ll still give me pointers here and there. He’ll generally have the answers to any questions I have about my game, having been through the same situations I’m going through.

Having recently signed a new three-year contract at Glasgow, what are your goals for the season ahead and further beyond?

As it is every season, my main goal is to keep my place in the team. It’s not easy to get a game here, so I need to fight to keep my shirt every weekend. Obviously, we had the high of winning the league last year and we want to back that up, but one of the big things at the club is that we’ve never done that well in Europe, so we want to fix that.

The way the squad’s developing, both of those goals are definitely achievable. With guys like myself and Jonny Gray having signed new contracts, and a few more young boys in the team, it’ll definitely help the club get to the level we want to get to.

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