Finn Russell on outfoxing Stuart Hogg, comparing hairstyles and winning the Champions Cup
Scotland’s best two players go head to head on European club rugby’s biggest stage on Saturday when Finn Russell’s Racing 92 take on Stuart Hogg’s Exeter in the Heineken Champions Cup final.
It has the potential to be a career-defining occasion for the former Glasgow Warriors team-mates who once lit up Scotstoun and are now flourishing in the world’s richest leagues in France and England.
Russell and Hogg have a star quality about them and a creative flair that ensures they shine brightest in two teams packed with household names.
It’s no surprise that both are on the five-man short-list for the European Player of the Year award, with the winner to be announced after Saturday’s final which will take place at Ashton Gate, home of Bristol City.
With 125 caps between them, Russell and Hogg have been international colleagues for the best part of a decade and you have to go back a long time for the last occasion in which they opposed each other on the rugby pitch.
“We must have been 12 or 13 years old,” recalls Russell from Racing’s training camp in Corsica. “The time I remember is playing against each other in the Gala sevens. Hoggy and Rory Sutherland were playing for Hawick and I was playing for Stirling County. That’s the last time I remember playing Hoggy.”
The Exeter full-back spoke this week about their early encounters and his chief memory was Russell’s “leopard-print haircut”.
The Racing stand-off wasn’t about to let that one pass without comment.
“It’s funny, he talks about my haircut,” said Russell. “He keeps changing his hair and he’s gone back to what he had then, with the blond tips.”
The pair will have time to compare tonsorial notes later this month when they link up with Scotland for the autumn Tests. Russell will travel north on Sunday but Hogg won’t join the squad until the following week after Exeter’s Premiership final against Wasps.
Most of the Scotland party gathered in Edinburgh this week but Russell, Hogg and fellow Exeter Scots Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner joined them on a video call.
“Yeah, there was a team meeting and the exiles who were not in camp took part through Zoom – me from the team hotel here in Corsica, while Hoggy, Jonny and Sam were in Exeter,” explains Russell.
And wasn’t it weird chatting to Saturday’s rivals so close to the big game?
“It was fine, we’re team-mates,” laughs Russell. “I had another interview with Hoggy the other day so it was me and him having a laugh before we go into the final on Saturday – it is how it is. We were team-mates at Glasgow, we’re good friends, but this happens in sport so it is fine.”
Russell’s laidback persona masks a supremely gifted talent. Anyone who saw his match-winning intervention in the Champions Cup semi-final win over Saracens will testify to that. He chipped the ball forward for Virimi Vakatawa in his own half, then raced on to collect the threequarter’s return pass before feeding wing Juan Imhoff who ran in to score.
It was the only try of the game and turned a 15-12 deficit for Racing into a match-winning situation with only four minutes left.
The stand-off’s ability to combine with New Zealand-born France centre Vakatawa is one of the Paris club’s great strengths.
“I think it happened quite quickly and naturally,” says Russell of the relationship. “We both get on really well off the field, have a laugh, and we both understand each other really well on the field. For me, it’s simple: I just give the ball to Virimi – it’s easy.
“But I think over time, as we’ve played and trained more and more together, there has been more things that we have added into it, and the relationship has grown and grown.
“Whether it is a chip kick over the top like in the semi-final, or a miss pass, he knows that if he gets in the right place, I will put the chip or the pass in the right place.”
Like a master safecracker, Russell’s speciality is unlocking difficult defences. Exeter have had an impressive season and it could yet turn out to be an outstanding one, depending on the outcome of their two finals. Their success has been built on solid foundations and Russell knows he will have to be at his creative best to unpick this particular lock.
“It’s going to be very tough for us. It’s a different defence to Saracens,” he says. “There are different opportunities. Like the semi-final, it’s not going to be easy to break a world-class defence.
“I’ve been watching them and I’ve seen a few things we can maybe try out. But it will be a very, very tough game for us.”
Neither side have won this competition before but Exeter have twice reached the final, losing to Saracens in 2016 and Leinster two years later.
The defeats pre-date Russell’s time at the club and the Scot sees little point in raking up the past. “We’re not looking back for motivation,” he says. “I think everyone is very driven to try to win the Champions Cup. I wasn’t here for the previous final but I can see what it means to the players, we’ve got a few who played before so hopefully this year we can go on and win it.”
The stand-off prefers to live in the moment. He has patched up his differences with Gregor Townsend and will return to the international side this month but for now, the focus is fully on trying to win European club rugby’s biggest prize.
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