‘It’s not dangerous, I swear,’ says Finn Russell, wearing a cheeky grin as he juggles fire sticks in his back garden in Paris. It is close to 10pm. A dark night sky has fallen over the city and the rotating beam from the Eiffel Tower swoops overhead to a steady beat.
‘This’ll make the flames bigger,’ he says, dipping the batons into a jar of white spirit that he fetched from the basement.
As with rugby, Russell makes it look easy. ‘I’ve juggled as long as I can remember,’ he says, flames whipping past his face. ‘You start out with clubs and then you move on to fire. My dad taught me to do it.’
Finn Russell insists his fire-juggling trickery, performed at home in Paris, is ‘not dangerous’
Not content with the basic 1-2-3 technique, he attempts a sleight-of-hand trick that ends up with a stray baton landing on the grass. ‘Dad’s better than I am!’ he says. ‘I’m overthinking it, trying to get in my rhythm, it’s best when you just go for it.’
A bit like rugby? ‘Yeah, I suppose.’
His partner, Emma, watches on from the living room. She has just put their two-month-old daughter, Charlie, to bed. ‘Smile!’ she yells, before Russell nails it not once, but twice. Rugby’s magnificent showman is in his element. ‘Do you want a go?’ he asks his reluctant audience, finishing up the fuel before retreating back inside to clear up the dishes.
Bolognese is on the menu, served up with a couple of warm baguettes. He pours a couple of glasses of red wine, Chateau Lafon Rochet, from the Racing 92 owner’s vineyard. No booze for Russell, though, just a pint of tap water.
‘Changed days! I can’t be doing that now I’m a dad. The Heineken machine’s downstairs in the basement with the juggling bits. The beer machine never really worked that well, anyway, came out too foamy. I’ve swapped it for a microwave to sterilise the baby stuff!’
Russell, who leads Scotland’s Six Nations charge, has ditched alcohol after becoming a dad
There is a blackboard in the kitchen, covered in notes to chart Charlie’s development. First smile, first words, first steps. Over the coming days, Russell will leave his family home in Paris to join up with the Scotland camp. His first time as a father. He was dropped by Gregor Townsend at the end of last year’s Six Nations after breaking a curfew, having grown frustrated with the sport, but the No10 will return with a new outlook on life.
‘Everything pretty much changed overnight after I found out Emma was pregnant. Maybe I was waiting for something serious like a baby to come along and give me a reason to settle down. It gave me a reason to change. Not necessarily grow up, but take more responsibility. Some might not agree but I’m more responsible now.
‘Before Covid I was going out, having fun, making good money and spending a lot of money. If we’d had a big win I’d go wild. If we’d lost, I’d be picking up my spirits by having a laugh and forgetting about it. I used alcohol to deal with different scenarios, without really knowing it. I couldn’t go out for two years during Covid and I realised how much money I was saving. I didn’t really care before, because every month the money was coming in. I don’t look back and regret it because it was good fun and I was playing good rugby, but things are different now.
‘When I was living on my own I was just playing PlayStation, ordering food and playing PlayStation again. I’d stay up playing PlayStation until 2am and then sleep until midday on my day off. PlayStation was just a way to block things out. I was tired all the time, I put on weight and things eventually catch up with you.
‘The times when things blew up with Gregor were when I was frustrated by the rugby side of it. My relationship with Gregor is better than it ever has been; both of our lives have changed over the last few years. I would go out for a drink as a release because I never really switched off from rugby. Now you come back and wind Charlie, or whatever job you need to do to help out. Your mind’s not on rugby all the time. You’re looking for those reactions, a smile or a laugh, when you touch her hands or feet. It’s nice. The happier I am, the more I’m enjoying things off the field and the better I am on it.’
He says his relationship with Scotland’s head coach Gregor Townsend is ‘better than ever’
Conversation turns towards rugby’s Netflix documentary. Cameras will be following Russell and his team-mates throughout the Six Nations for a series that will be released next year. Russell should be one of the stars of the show.
‘The producer will probably be saying, “Get a camera on that guy! Follow him everywhere he goes after the game and you’ll get him downing a few pints in some bar!”’ he jokes. ‘They’ll be expecting big things and they’ll be thinking they’ve got the wrong guy! I’ll be there eating Haribo and drinking Red Bull.
‘Seriously though, it’ll be good for the sport. Look at what it did for Formula One. Hopefully it’ll grow the audience. I guess it depends how much the teams let the cameras see. I’m happy for them to see whatever they want. Fans are going to want to see how you celebrate a big win. They want to get behind closed doors and see all the work that goes in.
‘Some boys are different off the pitch to on the pitch. Some boys are a bit shy in front of the camera. Some boys love it. Hopefully it grows the profile of the players because rugby’s still quite young on the promotional side of things. We just need the product on the field to be good too.’
All eyes will move to Twickenham next Saturday, when England host Scotland in the Calcutta Cup. Russell has been England’s nemesis in recent history, winning three and drawing one of his five Tests during the Eddie Jones era.
Russell hopes to keep up his good record against England despite their chance of head coach
‘I don’t want to jinx myself but I’ve not lost to England in a while,’ he says. ‘I’ve got plenty of good memories against them. A couple of bad ones. It’s always a big game with heightened emotion to it. We don’t know how England are going to play with Steve Borthwick coming in as the new coach. I imagine they will be very different. We’re probably better looking at Leicester games under Borthwick than anything from the autumn. It’ll be interesting to see whether they go with Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell together, or just one of them.’
Russell’s time in Paris is drawing to a close and he will move to Bath later this year, joining up with the Premiership club. A new beginning. He pulls out his phone and opens the Rightmove app to show some of the houses he is looking at. ‘This one’s got a putting green in the back garden,’ he says. ‘I’ll need to get Charlie into golf. We want a three or four bedroom so we’ve got a spare room for when we’ve got folk coming down. My contract is three years so in time Charlie will have her own room too.’
At 30, Russell is drawing closer to the twilight years. But he has a new lease of life, with no intention of hanging up his international boots after the World Cup. Family life has provided new inspiration and he has been working on a new app, which could be launched during the Six Nations.
‘I’d like to play for Scotland for as long as I can,’ he says. ‘The World Cup is this year and the next one is Australia in 2027. I’ll be turning 35 then… who knows? Jimmy Gopperth is almost 40 and still playing. It’s not “One more contract and I’m done” but I’m trying to get things sorted off the field, in case I have to stop early. Fortunately, I’ve not had too many injuries so I’ll just keep going as long as I’m enjoying it.’
As for everyone else, enjoy it while it lasts, because entertainers like Russell do not come along very often.
Russell plans to play for Scotland as long as possible, and moves his club days to Bath soon
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