Before arriving in the Hauts-de-Seine in 2018, fly-half Finn Russell already had something of a golden reputation. The Glasgow hero arrived in France on the back of the 2015 Pro 12 title (having been runner-up in 2014), the same year he was called up to Vern Cotter’s World Cup squad.
He may not have a head for travel - he takes the time to settle in wherever he goes - but he was convinced that if he was to progress, he needed to experience something new.
"In Scotland you’ve only got two professional teams," he pointed out. "So, if you go from one to the other, you’re still playing day in, day out with guys who play for Scotland. It’s different in England where you’ve got a whole league. Personally, I think it was really good to go and experience something new in a new team."
Fifteen crucial weeks in New Zealand
The first opportunity to grow his rugby came when he was barely 20. The John Macphail Scholarship enabled him to spend fifteen weeks in New Zealand, playing for local clubs in the Christchurch area and benefiting from the state-of-the art facilities and specialist coaching offered by the Canterbury RFU's International High-Performance Unit.
He was coached there Jason Holland - a Kiwi fly-half who played 102 games for Munster between 1999 and 2008 before becoming a coach for Munster, Canterbury, Hurricanes and now the All Blacks. Russell was learning from the best, and this unique experience was to take him to another dimension for the second time in his life.
The first, undoubtedly the most important in his career, was a few years earlier when the Glasgow Warriors academy offered a contract to the young man who had started playing rugby at the age of seven. An apprentice stonemason at the time, Russell worked for a family friend who had offered him a three-year contract. He was unsure of his future - possibly reflected in his improbable haircuts which he worked on with great care, without ever landing on a lasting style.
After leaving school at 16, he spent the next three years on building sites, constructing walls. His introduction to professional rugby was his gateway to a new life.
Recruited to succeed Dan Carter
After six years with the Glasgow Warriors, it was time for Russell to explore a different style of rugby. The idea of moving to France came from Leone Nakarawa, his former Glasgow team-mate. The 6’4" Fijian had been playing for Racing 92 since 2016.
The idea crossed his mind and Russell discussed it with his agent, wondering if any clubs would recruit him. Immediately, Montpellier, Lyon, Toulouse, and Bordeaux were all lined up. But in the end, it was Racing 92 who won the bid.
The club was then looking to replace its star player, Dan Carter, who was leaving for Japan’s Kobelco Steelers. Russell would have the tough task of replacing the two-time world champion.
"I don't think you progress if you never leave your comfort zone. And I have everything to discover here: a new life, a new environment, a new language, and new team-mates. I like the challenge," he once told Midi Olympique.
Small in stature, but a gifted rugby player
He quickly made his mark. French fans were discovering a player who had nothing of the rugby cliché about him. Winger Simon Zebo, his teammate at Racing, described him as having "the physique of a darts champion".
John Beattie, who played with him for Scotland betwee 2014 and 2015, recalled this Russell anecdote in the BastaShow: "His nickname with us was ‘Finn ‘The Muscle’ Russell, because he had nothing. He had no muscle. He didn't look like anything. He'd take his shirt off and we'd have a laugh. But when it comes to rugby, he stinks of rugby. The choices he makes, the way he livens up our game, whether it's for Racing or now Bath, it just explodes."
Integrating into his new club was not easy, but he managed to overcome the language barrier. " I think one of the hardest parts was the language when I first got there, sure," he told media in Bath last month. "Trying to understand the game plan, get on board with everyone quickly and communicate with them somehow on the field when I didn't speak the language - although they were speaking just enough English, but not enough to properly get your point across or vice versa. It would have been tough for them. Maybe that gave me a bit of freedom because if it went wrong, I could say ‘well, I didn’t understand!” – just blame it on the language, you know?”
Finn Russell, the magician
In 2018, Finn Russell is 25 years old and already has the reputation of a gifted rugby player, even if his game is not yet perfect. He is not yet at the peak of his career, but he has no equal in terms of attacking flair. In his first season, Racing 92 had the third best attack in the Top 14 (moving up to first in 2021) and the second best in the Champions Cup.
His coaches, teammates and journalists were all full of praise and superlatives: an exceptional number 10, a magician, creative, instinctive, skilful, the heir to Carlos Spencer and Quade Cooper.
Capable of turning a Champions Cup semi-final on its head with a chip, a purveyor all kinds of dummies and split-second decisions, he puts himself at the service of the team to get the ball rolling and tries to unlock defences - even if it means failing sometimes.
"With him, there is no such thing as zero risk," said Laurent Labit, his coach in Paris. "Finn is our x-factor,” added Philippe Boussy, Racing 92's kicking coach. "During a pre-season training camp, he told us that he was one of the only number 10 at his level who didn't kick at goal. He challenged himself, it was important for him, for us and for his national team too. The hard work is paying off today. That's a bonus for us."
Of course, he's not at his best all the time. Excellent during his last season in France (he finished top scorer with 241 points), he had been disappointing over the previous eighteen months. A tour with the Lions in 2021 did not allow him to recover sufficiently. It was enough to make people grumble when reminded that he was the club's best-paid player.
Recent editions of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations have yet to see the best of Russell on a consistent basis either. He suffered a concussion in 2018 and again in 2019, picked up an injury in the 2020 Championship and injured his knee again in 2023.
He doesn't let it go to his head. With a smile that never leaves his lips, he takes life as it comes, making the most of his days and evenings. (Russell has been described as a party animal in the past, which created some perception issues.)
He displays a nonchalant, relaxed attitude, even when the pressure is on. He juggles during training sessions, a legacy inherited from his father since the age of 12.
Finn Russell has that rare ability to switch off and on again in the blink of an eye. "You can smile on the pitch for three seconds and still be focused the next," he says. "I've learned and understood the importance of being very calm in the last few minutes so as not to miss the right opportunity to find a solution."
This apparent relaxed attitude is appealing in France but irritating on the other side of the Channel. "I need to be happy to play well.” That's why he's always smiling, always relaxed, always cracking jokes. His Racing 92 team-mate Gaël Fickou agrees: "That's all he does at the gym.”
Cool on the outside, focused on the inside
But Johnnie Beattie cracks the myth: “He shows this nonchalance, but behind the scenes he works like a donkey. He's the one who does everything, from A to Z. He's the one who leads the work, he's the one who sets the game systems, the structures, how to execute. And for the Scottish team, he's the one who drives us."
Racing 92's young scrum-half Nolann le Garrec, 21, is set to win his second cap against Scotland in round two. He was the number one kicker ahead of Russell when the two played together in Paris.
"He's someone who has helped me a lot in my development as a player since I started at Racing when I was 18. I played with him for three years. He taught me a lot of things," said the young international at a press conference before the Championship match.
"He's an outgoing, happy person who likes to joke around with everyone. He's an exceptional character and a great player on the pitch. Everyone laughs with him because he has an atypical physique, he doesn't look like the perfect athlete, but he's very professional in the way he prepares for matches.
"He knows his opponents very well and does a lot of video analysis during the week. Behind his magic and his instinct, there is a lot of work going on. On the pitch, he's always given me that serenity. He's always told me not to hesitate to try things, because he's the first to do so. Sometimes he misses things, and he's criticised for that, but he succeeds in a lot of things.
"An hour before the match, he plays Candy Crush, eats sweets and puts his can of Red Bull on top of his locker. Of course, he rereads his notebook with his pre-match notes, but it's hard to tell anything about him before the match. He radiates such serenity. Even in the last few minutes before the match, he's capable of playing a joke on someone. That's Finn at work!"
Gaël Fickou elaborated on the Russell persona in L’Équipe: "Technically, Finn is almost an artist. He takes the ball, he does what he wants, he plays it where he wants. Sometimes it goes through. Sometimes it doesn't! Everyone loves him here. He really has the club spirit. Finn has that quality of admitting when he's made a mistake, but that doesn't stop him from trying new things right afterwards."
Finn Russel is interested in the strategy of the game. He religiously watches his opponents' last three or four games before facing them. "I try to see how the prop and second row are positioned, the distance between the 12 and the 13, what might have happened two or three minutes beforehand,” he told journalists.
Today he admits that in five years he has become a more tactical player. When he arrived in France in 2018, he humbly explained to Le Figaro: "I didn't come to Racing to change French rugby,” but five years on, the opposite is true: French rugby has changed him.
In total, he played 105 matches for Racing 92, scoring 474 points, before putting an end to his mission and setting his sights on another country and another league.
"I think the mentality here is different to France and the mentality of Scotland is different than France and England," he says six months after arriving in Bath.
"So, I think as a ten it was really good for me because it probably grew my overall knowledge of the game, my understanding of different parts of the game. As a result, my outlook on how you should play has changed at times. That's to do with the coaching that you're getting, the players that you play with.”
Bath will not be his last port of call. In June 2023, he told French media: "Ideally, I'd like to spend three years at Bath and then finish my career in France. After all, I’ll only be 33 when my contract here ends.”
"I loved my time in Paris. It's a great club and a great place to live," he said on leaving the Hauts-de-Seine. But his best memory will be the joy of experiencing the birth of his daughter, Charlie, in 2022. She will forever remain the symbol of those years when Finn Russell became even greater than he already was.