England v Scotland: Owen Farrell v Finn Russell in Calcutta Cup in Six Nations
- Updated: February 6, 2021
Two men, two matches, two moments. The first, comes in Fukuroi. Scotland are about to take on Russia in a pool game they know they will win. Finn Russell picks up three balls, one in his left hand, a second in his right, another jammed between. He drops the third ball onto his left instep, flicks it up, and strides onto the pitch, juggling the balls between his hands like a circus performer. The second comes in Yokohama. TJ Perenara utters the opening words of the haka. His All Blacks stamp and slap. And on the stadium big screen, on televisions around the globe, Owen Farrell’s face appears. The England captain’s eyes are locked on the opposition. And, while New Zealand issue their challenge, Farrell stares back with a lop-sided smirk. The oldest rivalry in Test rugby always needs new contrasts. A fresh way to spin the yarn. On Saturday, much will centre on Russell and Farrell. The entertainer against the terminator. The mischief-maker against the commander-in-chief. The game-breaker against the results-grinder. But both men, and their differences, are more complex than that. Scotland and Glasgow’s Ryan Wilson remembers when a 21-year-old Russell first turned up at Warriors. “He was very thin,” he tells BBC Sport. “He still is, although I think he might have put some more gut on with the baguettes in Paris.” What was apparent to Wilson then, has become obvious to all since he left Glasgow for Racing 92 two and half seasons ago. “He has always been able to do special things on a rugby pitch,” said Wilson. “The way he brings people into the game and finds space is special.” Farrell has seen Russell’s sleight-of-hand magic up close. In Scotland’s 2018 Calcutta Cup win, Russell set up a try with an audacious looping pass more precisely plotted than most space missions. In 2019’s pulsating draw at Twickenham, Russell revived a flat-lining Scotland, nabbing an audacious interception off Farrell for a 50m score en route. In Racing’s colours, his deft chip broke Saracens’ Champions Cup dreams in September. He pulled the strings to perfection in the Barbarians win over England in 2018. Even those down the pecking order are fans. “He’s a step ahead,” said Duncan Weir, who has found Russell in his way at both Glasgow and Scotland at different points of his career, on BBC Scotland’s Rugby podcast. “He sees the space so early and can also execute skill under so much pressure. “I can leave my ego at the door and say he’s definitely the right man to drive the team to victories.” Russell’s bucking a trend. Test rugby is all percentages and position at the moment. Victories tend to be ground out through collective attrition rather individual inspiration. But, with a forward pack unlikely to win an arm-wrestle, giving Russell free licence is the most pragmatic option for Scotland. The likeliest route to a first Twickenham win in 38 years is along the high wire. Off the pitch Russell’s playful streak marks him out amid the modern game’s po-faced professionalism. As a teenager, he played with his hair dyed in a leopard print. His pre-Test meal was a club sandwich and can of Irn-Bru. On the touchlines, he has busted out dance moves. Post-match, he certainly has. “The two places he’s most at home are on the rugby pitch and the dance floor,” added Wilson. “He isn’t at the front of a queue for a night out, but enjoys himself when he gets out there. “You have got to have that balance where you turn off from rugby. That’s what Finn gets right.