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Mind games

Jamie Lyall

Every week, Finn Russell and Mike Prendergast meet for coffee deep inside Racing 92’s state-of-the-art training ground.

The two laugh and chuckle and chew over the issues of the day, but at the heart of the reverie lies a steely purpose. Some of the sharpest plays the European game has seen were devised in this Gallic setting, cups of foaming auburn liquid stewing under the Parisian sun.

Every week, Finn Russell and Mike Prendergast meet for coffee deep inside Racing 92’s state-of-the-art training ground.

The two laugh and chuckle and chew over the issues of the day, but at the heart of the reverie lies a steely purpose. Some of the sharpest plays the European game has seen were devised in this Gallic setting, cups of foaming auburn liquid stewing under the Parisian sun.

Often, attack coach and fly-half will sniff out the same weaknesses, like sharks patrolling the ocean for the merest hint of blood. A clue here, a tell there. Maybe a team can be manipulated with the boot; maybe they leave one of their lumberers exposed down the narrow side.

Against Saracens, for instance, the best defence Prendergast reckons he has ever coached opposite, the two of them spied a teeny frailty. In having their scrum-half defend tight to the ruck, the European champions left a precious few square feet of unguarded space for Russell to toe into, Virimi Vakatawa steaming through to gather and caress beautifully back to his pivot, before Juan Imhoff galloped away for the semi-final-settling try. 

To have the skillset to do it in that pressure moment takes something special and that’s what Finn brings.

This was no spontaneous frisson of genius – it was a moment expertly calculated and ruthlessly seized. Russell’s audacious dink got the fanfare and emojis and the worshipping on social media, but there were so many contributions to deliver the howitzer salvo in the final 10 minutes.

“To have the skillset to do it in that pressure moment takes something special and that’s what Finn brings,” Prendergast tells The XV. “But if it’s not for the work Juan does off the ball, we don’t score that try. His work rate is phenomenal, it’s through the roof. Two phases previous to that, he was at the bottom of the ruck.

Mike Prendergast
Mike Prendergast calling the shots for Racing 92 (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“Elliot Daly is catching Finn, so if Juan doesn’t make that double, triple effort, we don’t score. There are good ingredients – we got a good carry, a good ruck, we identified that there was going to be good kick space there because they defend the ruck area so well.”

There are stars at Racing, of course, but no prima donna attitudes. The galacticos in the backline – Russell, Imhoff, Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Simon Zebo and now Kurtley Beale – know their route to the whitewash is made infinitely smoother by the beasts up front. 

“We might score a try after 10 phases, but it might be the clean or carry after the third phase that is most important,” says Prendergast. “Everyone realises that it is one system.

What separates Finn from other 10s is his ability to make a late decision on the line and guys feed off him.

“Finn has huge gratitude for the player that made that good carry or clean or worked so hard to get to the inside on the clean against two carriers, and we take huge value in that. You can have all the world-class players, and we do have them, but it’s sometimes about doing the things that don’t take talent. We’re getting better and better at that.

“And what separates Finn from other 10s is his ability to make a late decision on the line and guys feed off him. We have that familiarity in our squad – Virimi and Simon Zebo; these guys read Finn and that’s a great weapon to have in your attack. And then when you’ve guys who bring different profiles, skillsets and work rates like Juan Imhoff, our work off the ball I’m very strong on, and it goes back to starting up front.”

Prendergast is a Munsterman exiled in France, a former scrum-half whose coaching career took him to Grenoble, Oyonnax and Stade Francais before he joined Laurent Travers’ Parisian juggernaut a year ago. He has won a reputation as an innovator with a razor-sharp rugby brain.

He doesn’t so much conduct the Racing orchestra as set out the ground rules and tune up the instruments. It is down to the musicians – Russell, Vakatawa and co – to decide how and when to play them and more often than not, a glorious symphony emerges.

Simon Zebo Finn Russell
Simon Zebo and Finn Russell have a strong friendship (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Russell plays with the suave precision of a matador, his swaggering gait transfixing and terrifying defenders. The Scot yanks them one way then the other with his actions on the ball, sky blue jerseys swarming around and beyond him like fighter jets punching through gaps. The effect is a mesmerising sorcery, but it is all cleverly choreographed. 

“For players like Finn, Virimi, Teddy and Simon to thrive, you have to have a framework,” says Prendergast. “If not, you don’t have accountability and your ruck becomes a problem as well.

“But you have to leave those players to flourish because that’s their strength. Give them a framework to express themselves within that.

I’ve been in France nearly eight years now, and in that time, the video culture has changed. French rugby has changed, especially with the younger generation here. They want detail.

“I know some of the things look like they just happen there and then, but there is work behind most of what we do and especially the work rate because you try and get as many numbers around the ball to unsettle a defence.

“Even on the video, that’s a big culture we have here. I’ve been in France nearly eight years now, and in that time, the video culture has changed. French rugby has changed, especially with the younger generation here. They want detail, they want to look good obviously so they want to play well. The video culture here in Racing is really, really good and Finn is one of those guys who drives that really well. It looks like it’s just off the cuff but there is a thought process.”

Finn Russell
Finn Russell in action against the Scarlets (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There is a saying at Racing: “prochain boulot”. In English, it means simply: “next job”. The phrase in itself is nothing special; you will hear any number of players on any given matchday barking the mantra. In essence, the call is to shrug off an error and press the reset button, to prevent one mistake infecting the mind until it wrecks a performance. Nobody embodies prochain boulot – really embodies it – better than Russell.

The biggest thing for me is, he’s a player that can do stuff that maybe no other 10 in the world can do, and most of the time it comes off, but when it doesn’t, he forgets about it.

“The biggest thing for me is, he’s a player that can do stuff that maybe no other 10 in the world can do, and most of the time it comes off, but when it doesn’t, he forgets about it,” says Prendergast. “He just puts it behind him, and it’s all about the next job.

“He’s building a very good strong mental side as well. It was something he maybe let linger when I first arrived here, and it happens in training, because we try things in training.

“Finn knows who he has, his threats on the line. The talent he is, 80% or 90% of the time the things he tries come off, but if they don’t, he doesn’t dwell on them.

“And the other thing is his short offensive kicking game. It was always good, but there is more focus on it now as defences get harder and harder to break down. He’s an incredible guy to coach and work with and he’s massively respected here. Obviously he has the talent, but it’s the quiet way he goes about it, that’s what the boys appreciate.”

Racing 92 v Munster
Racing 92’s La Defence arena (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

You sense that Russell has found his Eden in Paris, a place where he drives the culture and revels in the rugby blueprint. He is a leader and a jester. He is studious and ridiculous. He can make his points firmly in French at the end of a brutal session, and then be giggling in the sheds ten minutes later. Prendergast empowers him to create and command. The team, foreigners and locals alike, adore him as a man and cherish him as a player.

He has a relationship with Prendergast that he never really forged with Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach. Russell’s unseemly departure from the national camp on the eve of Six Nations training is well-documented, as are his frustrations at the way the environment operated and the rugby was played. Mercifully, bridges have been rebuilt in the months since. Scotland is all the richer for a happier, blooming Russell.

“I can’t talk too much about what went on in the past but in the future, you’ll be getting a very determined and motivated Finn who is in great form,” says Prendergast.

“One reason the guys will play with and for Finn is that he is quite friendly with a lot of the French boys and younger lads. It’s not just the foreign players, it’s the young French players he heads off on holidays with, he’s really bought in to it.

He’s the form 10 in the world at the moment. People might not agree, but you look at him in the Top 14, European quarter-final and semi-final.

“As a 10 it’s really important to have a good grasp of the rugby language. He’s gone off, learned the language and it just shows another buy-in. It’s another thing the boys respect.”

In the past, Russell was thought too flaky to be a serious contender for Warren Gatland and the fabled 10 jersey of the British and Irish Lions. You knew you would get fireworks, but could you hang your hat on him to nail the simple plays in the white-hot business of a Test series?

That maddening streak is gone now. There is a slew of rugby to come before the South Africa tour next year, but if you run over the gamut of fly-halves vying for Gatland’s attention, it is hard to argue that Russell is top of the pile. 

“The way he’s playing, absolutely [he is the first-choice 10],” says Prendergast. “He’s come back after lockdown and he’s improving his game. Look at him defensively as well, Finn is a very good defender. His offensive kicking game has improved, his restarts, his line kicking.

“He’s the form 10 in the world at the moment. People might not agree, but you look at him in the Top 14, European quarter-final and semi-final.

“Warren Gatland will be massively encouraged by this season and last season and he’s starting to get that complete game. When you tell him you have a framework, he sticks to the principles and the framework. He expresses himself within it.

Finn Russell Racing 92
Russell has built a strong bond with his team-mates (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

“If you’re playing a team like South Africa who are incredibly well coached defensively through Jacques Nienaber, sometimes you’re going to need a bit of a sprinkling on it. And he’s the type of player who can unlock defences, he is showing his variation in the game and against the best defences, you need that, like on the weekend. When the time counted, Finn had a very good game and brought that little bit of magic.”

On the week of the Champions Cup final, Russell and Prendergast will go for coffee again. They will scrutinise Rob Baxter’s Exeter winning machine and come up with a plan to hurt them like nobody else has. 

“The great thing about Finn is that he wants to get better himself and he wants this team to get better,” says Prendergast. “It’s one thing saying that, but he puts it into practice.

“He’s incredibly consistent, since the day I walked in here. There’s a huge drive behind him, he really wants to succeed and all the players and coaches see that. He has all the ability but it’s his desire to be the best, to work.

“He’s not in the video room dictating, he does his work himself, behind the scenes. Finn is always there late afternoon working away, looking for little chinks in the defence.”

Racing and Russell will need to delve deep into their box of tricks, harness every ounce of gen hoovered up from their study sessions. Pull it off once more, and it will be their crowning glory.

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