If there is one detail of rugby discourse that i hate the most it is the unfounded and deluded perception that so-called “flashy” and “highlight” players are nothing more than their skills and tricks. Often people see players who specialise in flair and assume that they don’t have the solid general all-round game that others do. Is Cheslin Kolbe just a flashy stepper? No he is also one of the best defensive wingers in the world. Is Ardie Savea just really fast and skillful? No he is also elite at the breakdown and consistently tops tackles made statistics.
This is the same with Finn Russell. Just because he is unique in his ability and bravery to pull off an audacious cross-field kick or an outrageous offload that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the vision or the phase-play to match the likes of Ford and Biggar. Luckily, i don’t need to tell you this, because he proved it (once again) last weekend against Northampton Saints and the very same Dan Biggar that i just mentioned. Where does Finn Russell rank in your top 5 fly half’s in the world? Unless you live north of Carlisle I’m willing to bet that Russell doesn’t feature in your list, however, i am unashamed to admit that Finn sits in my top 3 and has done for many years now. The man possesses certain rare traits, he is a catalyst and a gamebreaker, he can change an entire game with a single swing of his boot or flick of his wrist and the best thing about him is that he knows this. In a world of media trained robots and “credit to the boys” clones Russell brings refreshing and invigorating confidence and personality. Taking to the field at a hostile Franklins Gardens, against the current third best team in the Premiership, with a grin on his face, fully aware of his capability to single-handedly unpick the green and black defence.
And that is what he did. Let me guide through the key seven moments that inclined me to write the title of this article (possibly an over exaggeration) and then i will allow you to draw your own conclusions.
The first Racing try comes from really basic analysis and a nice set play. They key man here in the Northampton defence is Dave Ribbans. He is what rugby coaches call “the guard”, the very first man in the defensive line out from the ruck. His role is to watch for the scrum-half sniping around the fringes or for a forward looking for a cheeky pick and go. Significantly, Ribbans most important job is to not move, ask any coach, semi-pro or professional and they will tell you that Ribbans has to stand still. This is because it takes a long time for defenders to wrap around the ruck and so the space he is defending cannot be filled quickly if he drifts. I couldn’t tell you if Racing noticed this weakness from film work before the game or if Russell noticed this in the opening 10 minutes of the game but it is likely that they prepared the move because Northampton play a drift defence, in other words, they defend in-to-out rather than out-to-in. Either way, Racing exploit this weakness magnificently. Russell steps back and runs directly at the gap between Ribbans and Ludlam in order to engage Ribbans and draw him away from his post at the fringe of the ruck. After this, it is a really clever line from Beale who comes from the other side of the ruck and the defenders “blind-spot” to glide through the hole. Russell is then on-hand to receive Beale’s offload and put Lauret under the posts in a beautiful try which Racing make look far too easy. Russell, in this example, is demonstrating his ability to execute a game plan rather than demonstrating his incredible ad-lib potential, but we will get to that.
Fly half’s are always looking for space. Most 10s, think of Ford, Pollard, will always be looking at corners, they notice when wingers aren’t deep enough and kick in behind them, while others, think of Barrett, Mo’unga, look for space on the wings when wingers are too narrow and they can execute a crossfield-kick. Russell is one of the best in the world at finding space in behind the defensive line and in front of the fullback. He loves the little chip over a rushing defence for his centres to chase and gather. But this isn’t just about pulling off a flashy, good-looking play. It is about making the defence second guess themselves. Northampton play one of the best and fastest rush defences in the Premiership and have, so often this season, killed attacks through this. Through Russell pulling off two early chip kicks over the rushing defence, now the defence is hesitating and will not come up so fast, therefore giving Russell more space and time on the ball for the rest of the game. People think Russell is unreliable and does flashy things because he cant execute a game plan when the whole time he is playing 3D chess and is already five steps ahead of you.
Now the Northampton defence has lost all it’s line speed Russell is just picking runners and watching them make easy metres. The Saints whole USP is that they have big-hitters such as Lawes and Ratuniyarawa who love to rush out the line and target 10s but Russell is untouchable. He takes a carry himself in the play before this and makes an easy five or six metres. Then the strike play. Saints fall for the exact same play as the first try and, this time, it’s Matavesi who drifts too far from the ruck and Imhoff who slices through gap. Here we can see in practice, the concept of creating space instead of finding space. While the likes of Ford can look up and see exactly where the space in the defensive line is, Russell uses his movement to create a gap where he wants it to appear.
This is the ad-lib stuff i was talking about. The two tries have come straight up the middle so now Northampton are defending more narrow, so Russell just casually hits his winger in the chest with a 40-metre crossfield kick. This is less of a game-breaking play and more of Russell just toying with the defence, telling them that whatever way they set up and whatever way they defend that he will find the space. I’ve seen people accuse Russell of being one-dimensional but his box of tricks is truly endless. And once again, this is not flair for the sake of flair, this is meticulous unpicking of one of the best defences in the northern hemisphere. Watch Skosan fly up off his wing to cover the threat of Thomas and watch Russell recognise this in milliseconds before executing the pin-point perfect kick.
This one is my favourite. I love how Thomas is stationed on Russell’s right shoulder to tease the same play as the first two tries and to encourage the defence to stay narrow. But the best part about the play is that they completely mess it up. The line of Vakatawa is supposed to hold Dingwall so that Russell can receive the pass and drift outside him. However, Dingwall doesnt buy the bait and gets round the dummy line and is about to smash Russell before the Scotsman throws the most outrageous pass perfectly over the head of Freeman and into the hands of Beale. Look at this freeze frame, the defence is actually over numbered, four defenders defending three attackers, how the hell do Racing score here? The only answer is the pass by Russell. Which other 10s in the world can throw this pass? I think i can confidently say that i can count them on one-hand. Freeman makes the defensive error here by jamming in too hard and leaving the space outside him but it still required Finn to make that split-second read to notice they were too narrow and throw the pass before Dingwall got to him.
This one is quite brilliant. Russell knows that Skosan chased the last kick and so his wing is empty, so now when Furbank comes up to chase his kick the backfield is severely under-manned. Any kick is only as good as it’s chase and the chase on this kick is poor, only Furbank makes an effort to reach the catcher, while Dingwall watches the threat of Thomas. Finn knows that if he can beat Furbank 1v1 then it’s a free run into the backfield where only Mitchell is waiting as Skosan is still in no-mans land. The offload to Lauret is equal parts outrageous and skillful. I love how Russell chooses his moments to run, knowing that if he bides his time, the defence will switch off to the threat of his running game and only look at the possible passing options. In this try, when Russell takes two steps infield, the whole defence drifts and focuses on Imhoff, leaving the short side as the weakness.
There isn’t really much to analyse here. It’s just really nice to watch.
How Russell didn’t win man of the match in this game i will never know. Instead they gave it to Lauret who scored three tap-ins to open goals after Russell set up all three on his own. I could make a comment here about casual fans not knowing a world class performance if it happened right in front of their eyes but I’ve been pretentious enough in this article.
Rugby semantics and media often depend on certain running narratives. Where these narratives are born i don’t know, often it comes from the fans, often it comes from major media outlets such as BT Sport. All it takes is one package on Rugby Tonight to convince the more gullible casual fans that a mundane average player is the best player in the world. One way or another, there is a narrative that Finn Russell is a “highlight merchant” who is only good for pulling “a rabbit out the hat” and can’t do the things that other elite 10s do. This is pure nonsense and based on no evidence. In this game Russell single handedly created 4 tries and also made a couple of mistakes from wayward passes and kicks. It doesn’t take a high level mathematician to calculate that 4 tries + 2 errors = 4 tries. Finn is unique in his ability to do unusual things but don’t pigeon-hole him as someone who is only capable of offhand and spontaneous moments because meanwhile, he is controlling and managing the game as good as any fly-half in the world. For every nutmeg grubber kick or banana spiral is 79 minutes of world class offensive tactics and organisation. Was his game vs Northampton the best performance by a 10 ever? Possibly, but probably not, Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, Beauden Barrett among others would have something to say about that but the point remains. Next time you have a conversation about Finn Russell, whether it be in real life or over the internet, don’t use any phrase along the lines of “rabbit out the hat” or “flashy” and see where it gets you. Ask yourself, if Biggar or Ford had set up 4 tries in a similar way, would the reaction from the fans and pundits after the game be proportional to the reaction Russell got? Don’t hold Finn’s passion and ambition for an outrageous highlight play against him and taint his reputation and legacy as one of the very best in the world and one of the very best we’ve ever seen.
I’ll leave you with this, Saints have conceded an average of 25 points per game in the Premiership this season, 21 points per game if you remove the 55 points they conceded to Leicester in October (an anomaly). Racing, led by Rusell, had scored 28 points by halftime at Franklins Gardens, and ended the game on 45 points. Furthermore, Saints have only conceded 27 tries in 9 games in the Premiership so far, that’s an average of 3 tries conceded per game. Racing Metro, led by Finn Russell, had scored 3 tries by halftime at Franklins Gardens and scored 5 tries in the whole game.