Scotland rugby star Finn Russell grateful to Falkirk for big break

Scotland rugby star Finn Russell says he has the season he spent at Falkirk a decade ago to thank for the career he’s enjoyed since, the Tennent’s National League Division 2 club having provided a springboard for moves to Ayr, Glasgow Warriors and Racing 92, as well as 58 caps to date for his country.

Finn Russell during a Scotland training session last week in Edinburgh (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group/SRU)
Finn Russell during a Scotland training session last week in Edinburgh (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group/SRU)

The fly-half this week told the Guardian newspaper’s Donald McRae that 10 years ago he had few aspirations beyond earning a living as a stonemason and even in his wildest dreams didn’t foresee the sporting success he’s enjoyed since.

“If another stonemason had told me 10 years ago I’d now be playing rugby and living in Paris, I would have thought ‘no chance’,” the Bridge of Allan-born 29-year-old told the London-based paper.

Now regarded as key to Scotland’s hopes of beating England again this Saturday in the opening match of 2022’s Six Nations and retaining the Calcutta Cup they won in London 12 months ago, Russell’s standing within the sport he loves is a far cry from where he was back then, playing for Falkirk in the second flight of Scottish rugby at weekends while working as an apprentice stonemason during the week for Tradstocks at Dunaverig, near Stirling.

Finn Russell with Scotland captain Stuart Hogg at a training session in Edinburgh on Monday (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group/SRU)

Russell had to move from his home-town club, Stirling County, for the 2011-12 season because – unlikely as it might seem now – he’d been unable to break into their first team, dropping down a division at Falkirk, currently captained by his elder brother Harry, for the 2011-12 season in the hope of getting to play regularly.

“I went to Falkirk to give it a last crack at making a professional career,” he said.

“I knew that if I didn’t do anything at Falkirk, I was just going to be playing rugby for a hobby and working as a stonemason.

“I wouldn’t say I was concerned because I was accepting of being a stonemason. My best mate was there and I was happy enough with a normal life.”

Falkirk didn’t realise straight away that they’d taken on a man destined to become one of the best players in the world but then coach Bob Wylie came to realise his potential within a matter of weeks, he recalls.

“Bob Wylie said something after a month. It was like ‘you can’t stay here after this season. You need to play in a better league than our side because you’re too good’, Russell told the Guardian.

“Bob gets a lot of credit for that and he is one of my best friends now.

“I loved my time at Falkirk. I had to learn how to control a team of men, so it was really good for me.

“It’s good fun to look back because after I finished at Tradstocks, I went to play for Glasgow in 2012 and then ended up at Racing. Six years from being an apprentice stonemason in Stirling to playing rugby in Paris is pretty quick.

“It’s a bit frustrating as it’s a four-year apprenticeship and, having done three years, I left to play rugby, but I had some good days and if I play golf at Gleneagles, I can say to my mates ‘oh, I did work on that house’.

“They were all pretty tough days but there was one winter when I’d start work at half-seven and it was -12C. You had to scrape a couple of inches of snow off the stone and carry it in. It was like a block of ice, and when you cut into the stone with the saws, the dust would spray into you and make your hands and body freeze.

“I don’t miss those days, but I left school at 16 and working made me see another side of life.”

Russell also talked to McRae about his bust-up with Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend two years ago and subsequent period in international exile.

“You learn how to deal with that and how to get going again,” he told him. “Coming back into camp, it’s like ‘don’t mess around, lads, let’s just get going’.

“Me and Gregor had lots of chats. We got to know each other and that’s helped so much. I think we’re the best we’ve ever been, and when any of the new boys ask how it is, I say ‘it’s so much fun. It’s amazing now’.

“That plays a big role in the way you play at the weekend. If you had a good week building up, you’re excited and ready to play your best. If I have a rubbish week, I’m tired mentally and it can have such an impact on the weekend.

“If we’re having a tough patch, I can also now see Gregor and say ‘maybe this could be different. Could we change it?’ It’s up to the coach if they want to listen, but I’ve learned how to approach situations like that better than before.

“Back then, we were both learning and almost came to a breaking point. Gregor will take the blame for it, and I’ll take the blame for it. Both of us held our hands up and said ‘it wasn’t good but it’s probably worked out for the best’.”

Russell also played with Townsend as attach coach, and Warren Gatland in charge, during the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa last summer, being brought on in the third and final test as a replacement.

“Due to injury, I couldn’t play much, but in the last test I showed how you can potentially play,” he recalled.

“We won the first test playing that kicking style. It didn’t really work in the second test but, for me, the way we played in that third test, the chances we created, was much better. We went out to play and beat them.”

Looking ahead to the Six Nations and assessing Scotland’s chances, he added: “We’ve got strength in depth in every position and the team is the strongest I’ve seen it.

“We were a few points away from winning the tournament last year but were just beaten by Ireland and Wales. It’s about finding a way of turning those narrow losses into wins. I believe we can.”