How Finn Russell is the greatest player in the world

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a loose cannon, a liability as much as an instigator of brilliance, is now however, as inaccurate as it should be outdated.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. 

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29 comments on “How Finn Russell is the greatest player in the world

  1. Ardent on

    Brilliant piece-thank you Chris!
    If they could replay one moment in rugby again (even more than Fraser Brown’s throw in to the line out in the 78th minute at Twickenham in the 2015 RWC QF) it would be that scrum on the Boks 5m line in the 72 minute last Saturday.Instead of Sinkler being penalised it would be just to see what Might Have) happened if the Lions win their own put in and Murray passes to Finn….
    Would he have put in a little grubber (between the legs perhaps) dummied on his own or slung out a long pass to the wing (Adams on the right) a la the phenomenal pass to DTHVDM in the 2015 semi v Ulster ?
    We will never know but would have been great just for Finn to have the chance to seal it at that particular moment.

  2. andrew murphy on

    THAT game at Murrayfield was the BEST I have witnessed in 48 years of going. I have never experienced an atmosphere like the last 20 minutes of that game when we had England beaten and they knew it!
    I was at the beating of England in 1983 and the Slams at Murrayfield in 84 and 90 but that game beats them all. If Finn Russell was Welsh he would have been lauded as a genius long ago rather than the pejorative use of the label “Maverick”. He should be called Finn the Magician from now on!

  3. Scrummo on

    You’ve think you’ve seen ‘that pass’ enough times that the effect would fade.

    But no, fully erect every time.

  4. Phil on

    This was the best article, not just on rugby but full stop, I’ve read in such a long time. Brilliantly written. I doff my cap Sir

  5. Not science on

    I still think for sheer perfection that last 5 min stumbled pick up, left hand pass and touch line conversion against Ulster is the one.

  6. James on

    A rugby article quoting Tennyson on Ulysses! Love it. Perhaps this article should be submitted to all the mainstream rugby journos to show them what good writing looks like.

    As for Finn, here’s hoping he keeps being dismissed as a maverick right up until he wins us a 6N, Grand Slam or RWC! There’s a spine of quality in the team now. There’s experience of winning in the team. There’s enough Lions for the players to know they and their colleagues are good enough. Toonie has hopefully learnt from past mistakes…

    Oh man, the unreasonable optimism is already starting to build in me now.

  7. Tollcross on

    Enjoyed this. I’m still seething about Kitson’s “one of his good games” – such a snide and unfair comment – so this was therapeutic.

  8. JohnMc on

    Great piece there, Chris.
    As fans, we’ve been very lucky to enjoy watching talents like Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson help to make Scotland a force again in Test match rugby. Complemented of course by other players who’ve shone or are emerging as real prospects.
    The three I’ve mentioned are all now in their late 20s and, with the benefit of modern day approaches to diet, fitness, conditioning and player management, they should (if injury-free) continue to contribute hugely to the national team for a few 6Ns and another RWC.
    Btw, that’s the first time I’ve seen the overhead shot of THAT pass. Sensational!

    • Nomad86 on

      Indeed… overhead view of THAT pass and resulting score…. Surely deserves some cinematography award! Majestic!

  9. Nodrog on

    Great player who has given me many moments of joy and the odd hart attack.
    We are so lucky to have such a talent playing for us.
    He will be greatly missed when he retires.
    Fortune favours the brave……..

  10. NeilH on

    Good article. Sport should inspire, that pass was probably a genuine heart stopping moment for anyone who saw it. I know mine did.

    • TENC on

      The rocket that took that pass was Huw Jones. By far the most talented Scot in recent years. Let’s hope he can get the niff naff and trivia of Glasgow behind him and enjoy the Premiership. I cannot see him in a Scotland Jersey though.

      • DesT on

        I’d agree that it’s likely that Jones and Scott are likely to the be the best combo never to have played for Scotland :(

      • FF on

        Jones played in the last 6N starting against Italy. He’s behind Harris in the pecking order, but then Harris is a Lion now. His Scotland career is certainly not over, unlike Scott.

      • Kevin Millar on

        Scott and Jones did play a grand total of 22 minutes together when Huw made his debut in the 2nd Test against Japan in 2016. Not sure that’s much to judge the partnership on though!

  11. FF on

    Apparently speculation is that Green Rockets Tokatsu are preparing an offer to buy Finn Russell out of his Racing contract and make him the best paid player in world rugby.

    Really hope Finn doesn’t go for it. He should be recognised as one of the best FHs of his generation but he hasn’t won anything of note. He should stay where he can win European cups and hopefully grand slams. Playing in Japan might prolong his career and boost his income but it’s not going to sharpen his game for the 6N or RWC. The Top League has loads of star players but the level is poor as majority of players are not fully professional.

    • TENC on

      FF:He is not anyones puppet. I bet you have moved to a new employer for better prospects ! If not, why not ! That said, I would imagine it is hard to beat Racing and Paris. But then again, Japan and the New Zealand influence might raise his game again.

      • FF on

        Re: puppet honestly WTF are you taking about???

        I was just expressing my hope as a fan that he stays in one of the best leagues in the world and wins something major before he retires. He can do whatever he wants (obviously) but clearly if he retires with no major trophies he’ll be someone Scottish fans look back on as one of our best ever FHs and other rugby fans as as a skilful player who was not a winner. I think he deserves more.

      • TENC on

        Finn Russell should do what is best for Finn Russell. Not the fickle fans who will turn against you as quickly as they praise you. It is not a hard point to grasp , but it is different from yours, I will give you that. He is already a winner and will remain in the heart of every rugby loving scot whatever he does next IMO. He has already earned that IMO. He doesnt need to prove himself to anyone other than himself is my opinion.

      • FF on

        Jesus wept – I haven’t ‘turned against’ him. Grow up.

        You’re the ‘fan’ who is waging a one-man personal vendetta against Stuart Hogg on these wages. Clearly nothing but a WUM.

      • TENC on

        What a brilliant opportunity. To travel the world playing rugby. It would be for me. Surely that in itself is success !

  12. BorderBadger on

    Fantastic piece of writing, Chris!

    This should be compulsory reading for any pundit who intends to speak or write on the subject of Finn Russell.

  13. Sam Laycock on

    When was the last time Russell and Huw Jones started a game together. I believe they were made for each other, in a Rugby sense. But it seems like their careers have past in the night.

  14. ClareM on

    Fabulous article. Beautifully encapsulates and articulates my feelings on Finn Russell and rugby. Thanks.

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