Reflecting on Ulysses, Tennyson once pondered, “how dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!”
With lesser poetry but no little excitement, Miles Harrison proclaimed on Saturday, “We’re going to have some fun now!” The reason for his exclamation?
Finn Russell was about to start playing rugby.
Will Greenwood added, “we’ll now win by 20 or lose by 20,” which stoked the ire of many a Caledonian heart. But in truth surely many felt the same. It may be unfair to characterise a player by his early years, but the heart-stopping moments we’ve come to associate with Russell have historically if not as often as success, often enough led to disaster that the dread still festers. He is the walking wildcard of a nation’s dreams, as seemingly likely to break them as make them real.
For better or worse however, his entry upon the field signals a change. Whatever occurs, no one will be bored.
Say what you will. The man’s not dull.
Russell is to rugby what Flintoff was to cricket. A shining personality in a sport too often clouded by meek conservatism and the urge not to piss anyone off. Pay your dues, doff thy hat, and quietly be appreciable for the pious wonder that is the ability to enjoy international level sport with the greats.
“No,” says Russell. “I’m here to play.”
The idea that he is a maverick; a loose cannon, a liability as much as an instigator of brilliance, is now however, as inaccurate as it should be outdated. “Oh, dear God, what is he up to now?” is the meme but in truth more often than not nowadays his laconic misbehaviour leads to success.
In the dreichest of tours, led by a coach undeniably effective in enterprise, but uninterested in the entertainment of the masses, a slugfest betwixt the strongest, most capable, calm, physical drivers in the world, Russell is the spark that ignites revolution of the soul.
For all that conventional wisdom dictates forwards win games and backs merely decide by how much, no one ever grew up dreaming of winning a ball in a ruck. It was the cheeky grubber, the outrageous chip, the daredevil backhand pass and the spin to freedom that excited us all.
Russell embodies the child’s dream of rugby.
Here is a player as much as any that sees the charade for what it is. Not an internationally important bout of regional pride, but boys on a field trying to have fun amidst a darkening world. Family and friends on the sidelines wishing for the best and living vicariously through the actions of overgrown teenagers on the pitch.
Past the age of twenty we all should be past the concept of sport, we all should be working in dead-end, dull as ditchwater, soul crushing, mind numbing, tax-paying jobs that serve only to define shades of boredom for the rest of our lives. Such is the nature of rugby that it offers a release from this. For two hours every weekend we’re offered a glimpse into a world not defined by TPS reports, middle management, or self-important toadies worming up to the boss in hopes of negligible advancement.
We can see a world unconstrained by the mundanity of general life and picture one wherein victory can be claimed through sheer will, where risk can be rewarded with more than prescribed outcome, and glory lies but a mad thought away.
No one embodies this more than Russell.
The Welsh may have sanctified every blade of grass Alun Wyn Jones ever glared at, Jonah Lomu may have inspired a hemisphere with awesome capability, and Faf de Klerk may have posed in his pants once, but nowhere is the brimming wonder of rugby so evident as it is in an oval ball held by Scotland’s number ten.
Rugby is conservative, polite, respectful to you and yours, at your service, and pleased to be acquainted. Most of the time.
Sometimes it’s handbags at dawn as men the size of small office blocks grab each other by the shirt collar and pretend there’s a chance they’re actually going to escalate to punches, sometimes it’s joyful imitations of hundred metre sprints as linesmen struggle to keep up with adrenalin crazed props, and sometimes, when we’re very lucky, it’s pure dead magic when a player decides conventionality has had its day and chaos shall rule the world.
It matters not if you’re Scottish. Struggle to find Racing 92 on a map? Worry not.
Think Bridge of Allan is from Lord of the Rings? No bother.
Every now and again in sport we’re treated to a player that reminds us why we became fans in the first place. It has nothing to do with geography, town rivalries, or ancient grudges. It’s because it’s fun. Fun to feel the wind in our hair as we race for the line, fun to launch ourselves above the waterline as we stretch for the poolside, fun to dive in the mud as we score a try.
How many grownups with real jobs, real responsibilities, and real worries forget them as they watch Russell fire madcap passes that have no business landing? Much more importantly, how many children run outside and try to emulate the same?
There’s a lot of talk in rugby about growing the sport and for sure that requires investment and infrastructure, but more than either it requires inspiration. Kids have to want to play. Who’s more likely to make them do that than the six-foot juggling gobshite from Wallace High School in Stirling?
Such was the brilliance of his throw to Huw Jones in 2018 that you need only say, “that pass” to a rugby fan and they’ll know exactly of what you speak. It was preposterous, unlikely, unreasonable. A middle finger to the accepted laws of rugby and the natural world, and yet somehow in defiance of – or tribute to – Isaac Newton, it worked and one of the great tries of the game was scored as a result.
That alone would cement his playing years in the memory, but it’s far from alone. As part of a young Glasgow squad eager to announce their arrival to the world he produced such moments of wonder that BBC Alba’s coverage seemed woefully unequal to the job. Where was the NFL films crew, documenting every dropped bead of sweat, bent blade of grass, and scratch of bewildered head?
To see him pair with Simon Zebo in Paris is to see the game at its free-flowing best, two men playing rugby ahead of the curve because they love it. And don’t we all? Isn’t this why we got out of bed in the wee hours, travelled hundreds of miles and paid frankly atrocious amounts of money to sit in the Gods, freezing cold, with an overpriced, under-fizzed, plastic glass of alcohol? Isn’t this what it’s all about?
Spare us your Johnsonesque thoughts on the majesty of a rolling maul in full flow, be quiet. Or your O’Connellish ponderings on the intricacies of rucks. The ball in open play, flung from side to side, darted through holes, and pinged over the top is where the joy of this sport lies. And one player is evidence of that above all.
Tennyson finished his treatise on Ulysses by noting that we were not now that which we once were. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” In most instances he was correct.
In rugby, we are Finn Russell, and the horizon has never been closer.