In the wake of last weekend’s Six Nations fixtures, Italy’s controversial showing at Twickenham shared back-page headlines with the stellar performances of Ireland’s half-backs. The supremely composed Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were worthy of the admiration heaped upon them against the French, and there were few arguments when both were named in the Championship’s official Team of the Week.
But, even as a huge Sexton admirer, I can’t help but feel that the confidence and deftness of Finn Russell’s game against Wales might have been more roundly credited. Although he was the deserving man-of-the-match in that fixture, the talking points from the other two games have received far more general discussion and, as a result, it seems fair to give Russell the praise he deserves here. I’m going to be using two examples – one from earlier in the season and the other from the Wales match – to take a detailed look at just how much his game management has improved this season.
Of course, “game management” can sometimes be one of those rugby buzz-phrases (my other favourites being “keep the scoreboard ticking over” and “earn the right to go wide”) that pop up in conversation so frequently that they often become detached from any useful meaning. Here, I’ll use it to refer to a out-half’s decision-making with a wider focus: not just thinking about nabbing the next score, but calling shots to close out a match under pressure.
I want to start by acknowledging that this is not an attribute typically associated with Russell. For many, his unfortunate kicking mishap against France reflected a wider deficiency in big-match consistency, despite the fact that he was hurried to take the kick by his coaches. The mercurial flair and talent that he exhibited against Dan Carter’s Racing 92 earlier in the season, the argument goes, needs to be matched with a cool-headed authority if he is to become a word-class out-half. It is his game management, in other words, that needs to improve.
In a Champions Cup match against Munster back in January, that conclusion seemed a fair one, as Russell’s decision-making and execution faltered under considerable pressure. With his side two points up and a man down with six minutes to play, Russell drops back into the pocket for a drop-goal attempt:
However, if we roll the play on from the rear camera, we can see Russell weigh up his options before turning the opportunity down, directing his forwards to carry wider with a waft of his hand:
Consider Dan Carter’s World Cup semi-final drop-goal against the Springboks, when his side were a man down and under the cosh. Carter’s effort demonstrated how, when you are playing with fourteen men, a three-pointer can be vital in settling nerves and re-establishing momentum. Russell chooses not to kick here, but in reality his decision should been far easier to make than Carter’s. As we can see above, he is 22 metres out and right in front of the posts; he clearly wants to run the clock down before having a pop, but, even if it was the 4th minute rather than the 74th, he would be lucky to be presented with a more attractive drop-goal opportunity than this.
Further still, look at Russell’s hand-motion in directing his forwards. This might seem like a minor detail, but I don’t think it is. There is no confidence in his instruction – no decisiveness. He does not look like a playmaker directing his carriers wide having spied an opportunity; rather, he looks hesitant, as though he is simply trying to buy himself some time to make a decision. As a result, a gilt-edged opportunity to score three points is missed.
Just four phases later, as we can see below, Munster’s defence has advanced nearly 10 metres, meaning that any drop-goal is now significantly more challenging. But Russell is still in a good centre-field position, and an attempt is very much still on. However, he makes another poor decision, choosing to hit the deep runner Lee Jones (circled) and go wide:
As the above graphic indicates, Munster’s two front-line defenders have numbered up on Glasgow’s attackers and, with the deeper defender also covering, outnumber them three-to-two. This leaves Jones isolated as he takes contact, meaning that his depleted side have to work extremely hard to track across and retain possession.
Unfortunately for Glasgow, Russell works his fatigued players even harder by going wide again just two phases later. When you are a man down against top opposition, you just don’t try to play this expansively. Predictably, Zander Fagerson looks exhausted as he carries, and spills the ball under pressure from Francis Saili and Tyler Bleyendaal to effectively end the move:
With British & Irish Lions selectors on the look out for big-game composure, the way in which Russell’s decision-making seems to stutter here would not have helped his case to tour. Moreover, he actually found himself in a similar position later on in the game, but compounded the above errors by opting for a dainty chip when it neither the time nor the place to do so.
In situations like these, a sound game-managing out-half acts as a voice of absolute confidence in communicating a plan, understands how his players are physically before adjusting that plan accordingly, and is ruthlessly pragmatic in taking chances when they are on offer. Against Munster, Russell was lacking in each of those criteria.
That said, it is a credit to him how open he was about his errors after the match. He admitted: “Yeah, I definitely think I should have [taken a drop-goal]. I sat back in the pocket a few times and, looking back in hindsight, one of those times I should have had a go.” I think this readiness to admit where he can develop is really conducive to advancement, and, if we turn our attention to his role in the Tim Visser score against Wales just over a month later, we can already see considerable improvement in the out-half’s game management and decision-making.
Early in the passage of play leading up to the try, little seems on for Scotland. They are centre-field with scant space out wide in which to attack, so, although he is further out from the posts than he was against Munster, Russell sets himself for a drop-goal that would put his side a crucial two scores ahead:
He already appears to have learned from his previous errors, ready to make a decisive decision that will put his side in control. But, since his distance from the posts makes any drop-goal a big ask, he allows his scrum-half Henry Pyrgos to run a few more phases. Crucially, Pyrgos keeps his carriers very tight to the ruck with short, punchy passes: this allows the Scottish forwards generate valuable field-position without spoiling Russell’s angle for the three-pointer.
A few of these phases later, however, Pyrgos’ snipe results in a catalytic half-break, and John Barclay increases the tempo further with a powerful pick-and-go carry:
The whole attacking picture has now changed. Where Scotland’s momentum was sluggish, they are now well on the front-foot; where their play looked static, they now have prime attacking ball. As the above clip ends, we catch a glimpse of Russell directing his forwards to support Barclay as he senses that there is a chance to score.
Pyrgos runs a few more quick phases to the left as Russell aligns his backs. When the out-half does call for the pass, we can see that he has responded to the flow of the game and cancelled his drop-goal, having decided that a try is realistically on offer:
Notice how decisive Russell is here. Against Munster, he simply directed his players wide, whilst standing deep without any real conviction; on this occasion, by contrast, he comes into the line at first receiver and takes it upon himself to dictate the game.
What we also see above, however, is really clever positioning from Stuart Hogg. The Glasgow full-back has subtly drifted wider than his man Jonathan Davies (circled), who, with his eyes fixed firmly on the ball, has failed to adjust. Davies is left defending the gap between Hogg and Huw Jones, and this is what creates the space for the try. It is really intelligent play from Hogg: he has effectively created an overlap out of nothing, just by keeping his head up and moving cleverly.
As we roll the footage on a few frames, Davies realises that he has been caught defending too narrowly. See how he plants his left foot, trying to jockey back towards the touchline as Hogg picks his line outside him:
Hogg’s movement is so subtle that Davies has noticed it far too late; Russell, on the other hand, possesses vision and reactions sharp enough to have spotted it sooner. Seeing the Welsh centre caught out-of-position, the out-half fires an absolutely perfect miss-pass to his fullback:
Hogg’s quick hands drew all the plaudits and, make no mistake, it was a superb piece of skill. But I can’t overstate the pedigree of that pass from Russell: it is nothing less than world-class. To beat Davies, he has to put an enormous amount of pace on the ball, but if it is is even slightly off-target, Hogg’s hands will not be in the position necessary to ship it to Visser quickly enough. Let’s look at it from one more angle, to get a better sense of how fast and accurate it is:
The superb vision that spotted Davies’ error gets the execution that it deserves. But while this is the kind of technical quality that we have always associated with Russell, what’s so satisfying about this score is how it goes hand-in-hand with a mental fortitude that we haven’t. His role in this try exhibits much-improved confidence and authority, not only in his initial decision to take the drop-goal, but also in his readiness to change his plan according to the development of the play.
In an interview with The Scotsman from the week before the Wales match, Russell said of his own playing style: “Some people describe it as risky. I admit it’s unpredictable. I like to play on the edge, I like to have a crack. I’ll take a gamble if I can but there’s no point in throwing a stupid one.”
Clearly, Russell is at a stage of his career where he is trying to develop the cool head and clarity of thought to match his improvisational skill and flair. Well, if his performance against Wales is anything to go by, this quest to become a complete, game-managing out-half is coming on leaps and bounds already.