Finn Russell: ‘Scotland fly-half’s Bath switch must deliver silverware’

Finn Russell, Hassane Kolingar of Racing 92 during the Champions Cup rugby match between Racing 92 and Sale Sharks at Paris La Defense Arena
Finn Russell will leave Racing 92 for Bath after the 2023 World Cup

When Finn Russell joined Racing 92 in 2018, he immediately sky-rocketed up rugby’s rich list. A reported salary of £850,000 gave him a place among the monied elite of the game.

Now that the worst kept secret in rugby is out and his move to Bath next season has been officially announced, Russell moves further up that pecking order.

He now goes from probably the joint fourth-best paid rugby player in the world – along with Toulon’s Cheslin Kolbe – to the third-best (if we accept the £950,000 a year figure as gospel), or possibly even joint-first along with Bristol’s Charles Piutau and Montpellier’s Handre Pollard (if, as reported elsewhere, the figure is actually a million a year).

Money, or lack of it, has been a big issue in the Premiership this season following the debacles at Worcester and Wasps, but among those wealthier outfits there’s still the capacity to break the bank for a marquee player. With his incredible skill-set, Russell is box office from top to toe.

It’s been quite a time for Russell. Left out of the Scotland squad for the autumn in the latest round of difficulties with his international coach, Gregor Townsend, only to return and put in the kind of stellar performances that made Townsend look utterly daft for effectively calling him the fourth-best fly- half in Scotland.

Then he became a father for the first time. Then he signed one of the biggest playing contracts ever written in the history of the sport.

Russell has money, but what he doesn’t have is lots of winners’ medals. In his entire career-and he’s 30 now-he has won one major trophy, the 2015 PRO12. The move to Racing was supposed to address that, but it hasn’t. It’s provided some fantastic moments, individual and collective, but Racing have failed in Russell’s time there.

For such a talented squad, put together at vast expense, a losing final in the Champions Cup in 2020 is the closest they’ve come to winning a big title in Russell’s time. They’re well in the hunt in the Top14 this season but their European prospects are in mortal peril having already lost two out of two.

‘Do you get a cat and ask it to bark?’

Russell will feel financially fulfilled, but if elite sport is about more than money then one trophy, more than seven years ago, is a dismal return on his talent.

You could put together a mesmeric highlights reel of the wondrous things he does on a rugby field, we can wax lyrical about him being a gloriously imaginative outlier in a game now dominated by muscle, but the bottom line is that he has only one piece of silver to show for it.

What are the chances of him improving on that when he moves to Bath? Financially, it’s a no brainer for him. Rugby wise, the jury is out.

Bath are one of England’s greatest clubs with a European Cup win in their cabinet, a big support, plans to redevelop their home ground and an incredible legacy of attacking rugby. The Bath we see nowadays is not at the races.

Last season they finished 13th and last. They’ve failed to make the top four in six of the last seven seasons and haven’t won a Premiership title since 1996. Currently they’re eighth of 11 in the Premiership with three wins from nine as well as two defeats from two in Europe. They rank 10th of 11 for points scored and 11th of 11 for tries.

No wonder they want Russell’s ingenuity. The club has stagnated for the longest time. But what can the Scots do about it? Thats the intriguing question.

Bath’s coach is the South African Johann van Graan, who moved to The Rec at the beginning of this season after five years as head coach at Munster. Van Graan is a good man, unfailingly polite and a fine technical coach. He’s also risk-averse. He’s been schooled in the culture of Bokball, 10-man rugby, bludgeon over rapier.

Finn Russell
Russell was recalled to the Scotland squad during the autumn having initially been omitted

He had some good results with Munster but the rugby was largely dull – or “turgid nonsense” as former Munster player Keith Wood called it in Van Graan’s last season in Ireland. “There’s no point talking about Munster’s attack, it doesn’t exist,” said Wood.

Truckloads of former Munster players criticized Van Graan in his years with the province. One of them said his style belonged to the “dark ages… it’s like 25 years ago.” That’s an exaggeration but it spoke to the general air of frustration, the lack of excitement.

Even the most measured observers of his reign would say that he was okay and nothing more, that they didn’t really go anywhere under his coaching.

The early signs at Bath aren’t wholly encouraging either, which makes the Russell signing so fascinating. Part of the reason why the fly-half has had such a testy relationship with Townsend is because of what he sees as a prescriptive gameplan, a lack of freedom to play it as Russell sees it.

That’s why he’s played so well at Racing. He was given license to play. It might not have resulted in trophies, but he’s thrilled the locals for years.

Unless Van Graan’s changes the way he views the game – from conservatism to a style more in keeping with one of the most creative players on the planet – you have to wonder how this is going to end up.

If he doesn’t allow Russell to be Russell, then what’s the point in bringing him in? Do you get a cat and ask it to bark? Do you get a brilliantly instinctive player and ask him to play a game of percentages?

For the sake of Russell’s rugby – if not his bank balance – you hope that he’s talked all of this through with Van Graan. It’s about money for sure, but it also has to be about ambition and getting in the hunt for the biggest trophies.

You’d like to see Russell operating at the top end of the English game rather than scuffling around near the bottom, where Bath currently resides. Whatever happens, it’ll be compelling.

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