Finn Russell exclusive: England will not pick Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith together
There is no better person to interrogate about England's fly-half options, with the Calcutta Cup just days away, than Finn Russell. Given his magical exploits in this fixture, the Scotland and Racing 92 fly-half has become almost as synonymous with rugby's own Battle of Bannockburn as Jim Telfer or the Flower of Scotland. Having conducted a Scottish victory over the auld enemy on three of their last five meetings – as well as one captivating 38-38 comeback at Twickenham – Russell is as accustomed as anyone to the Calcutta Cup's incandescence.
Russell is just as fine-tuned to the cacophony surrounding England's play-making options, too. On the 2021 Lions tour, Scotland's fly-half trained with Marcus Smith and played alongside Owen Farrell – but who should play No 10 for England, and can they continue as a play-making duo? It is the question that continues to loom large over Steve Borthwick's first team announcement, and Russell has a prediction.
"I don't think they'll continue with that 10-12 combination, I think they'll go with either Marcus or Faz [Farrell] at 10," he tells Telegraph Sport. "I can see Faz starting at 10, he's been playing class this year. He's a world-class player. Marcus has barely played since November. I could see them going with Faz at 10 and Marcus on the bench to bring that x-factor if the game is not going as planned. He can come on and change it.
"Marcus, in his comeback from injury against us, created a couple of x-factor tries. But I have no clue how England will be against us – probably our best way to look at them is Leicester's defensive and attacking systems from last year. The individuals might change, but I can't see a coach coming into a national team and completely changing how they have been coaching."
'There was a breakdown in communications between me and Gregor'
Russell's insouciance to England's unknowns is fitting. The 30-year-old might once have been known for his cantankerous behaviour – his tempestuous relationship with Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has occupied almost as many column inches as his prodigious passing – but Russell, lounging in UGGs and a hoodie at Racing 92's Parisian training ground, is now the embodiment of serenity. He and his partner, Emma, welcomed their first child, daughter Charlie, in the midst of the autumn internationals and he is back on good terms with Townsend after his initial omission in the autumn and will soon be adding to his 65 Scotland caps; and he is in form for Racing 92.
"[Being left out of Scotland's autumn squad was] disappointing for me but that's how it goes in sport," he says. "Emma was at the point where she could have [given birth] any day, so while I was gutted not to be in it, it was good to be with her. I then got called back in and her mum had to fly out to Paris to help!
"I didn't take [being dropped] too personally. Gregor needs to find the best squad. He wants the biggest pool in a World Cup year. Blair [Kinghorn] is a really good player. Gregor is looking at other options.
"After the last Six Nations, there was potentially a bit of a breakdown in communication between me and Gregor, which led to me not getting selected in November. He'll have his reasons. It's not for me to worry about. It's up to him. Whatever he said, I wasn't too stressed: 'Whatever. I'll keep playing my game.' I've been playing well this year, so I've just been sticking to what I do.
"Gregor and I have been chatting. Our relationship is good again. It's funny, it goes up and down, like a married couple! Although I don't know what that's like. Don't get me wrong, we're a bit up and down, but it's just how it's been with me and Gregor. But we're back on good terms and back on the same page."
He jokes: "No more bust-ups for now. Let's see how the Six Nations goes and then maybe we can chat again!"
'I won't be fussed by Netflix's cameras'
More blasé Russell might be, but that Stirling cheekiness remains. It comes to the fore when it is pointed out to him that the presence of Netflix crews during this year's Six Nations might spell the end of unauthorised, surreptitious benders in the bars of Edinburgh – such as the one that saw him and five team-mates disciplined and dropped at the end of the 2022 championship.
"You'd be surprised!" he jokes. "I'll find a way! They came over last week to do some filming, to get some insight into my life in Paris and what I do on days off. I'm not sure what it'll be like with a camera around. It'll be interesting to see how the guys react to it. More boys trying to crack jokes in the team room? Or shying away from it? You might get [boys talking more to seem more involved]. I'm dead chilled. I won't be fussed by it. What you see is what you get with me, I like to think."
'I've got an app that I'm creating'
If that is true, then Bath know exactly what they are getting. Russell will depart Paris at the end of the season, ahead of Stuart Lancaster's rebuild, to join the Premiership club on a three-year deal, an adventure about which he is visibly animated. Russell held talks with Bath six years ago, but a bad head injury ("five fractures; bleeds, not in, but on my brain; a proper nasty one") led to him craving a complete dislocation from his comfort zone. Now, though, he is visibly fired up by the mention of Johann van Graan's rebuild - and, maybe, even an about-turn on his lack of desire to coach.
"Bath are creating a really strong team and Johann wants me to play a central part in that, in terms of the attack," he says. "It's a different role over there; I lead the attack here but perhaps not as much as I will be over there.
"Three years ago, someone asked me about coaching and I just said that I didn't want to do it at all. Now, I don't know; I'm not getting towards the end of my career, not yet, but it's something I'd potentially look into. When I was last asked, I wasn't thinking about it all, and as a 10, you're... not a 'coach', but you're heavily influencing the attack. The amount of work that 10s do off the field in terms of analysis and working with players on an individual level, it's not as much as a coach, but I think the transition would be easier.
"I'll also buy a few properties and invest in a few things. I've got an app that I'm creating. I'm not going to go into too much detail because it's not launched yet but it's to do with photography. A random idea that came out of nowhere."
'The Calcutta Cup is massive for Scotland'
Russell, ever the maverick, tends to have those. Another, and further evidence of Russell's contemplation of life after rugby, is his usage of medicinal mushroom supplements to protect his cognitive function. "If there's something we can benefit from in the future, then why wouldn't we take it?" he says, before the conversation returns to the present – and this Saturday.
"The Calcutta Cup is massive for us, but we need to focus on the tournament as a whole. When we've had a big win, we have sometimes struggled the week after. That's something we need to get better at. If we win at Twickenham, that will just be one of five games. We'll need to get up and win the next one, which is where we have struggled; that second game after a big win."
As the conversation draws to a close, we wander around Racing 92's lavish training facility. Adorned on the gym walls, in gigantic lettering, reads: "Les perdants se plaignent, les champions s'entraînent [Losers complain, champions train]."
Russell's complaining days are long gone but, with just one trophy to his name – a Pro12 title with Glasgow in 2015 – his champion days might still be ahead of him. For whoever ends up in that England fly-half jersey, that is an unsettling thought.
Finn Russell is a Puresport ambassador and one of a growing number of players using medicinal mushroom supplements in a bid to protect cognitive function. For more information, visit puresport.co