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Russell relishes Anglo-Scottish rivalry as Champions Cup final gets go-ahead

Finn Russell says there is a Scotland-England element for him to Saturday’s Champions Cup final – and that could spell bad news for Exeter.

Racing playmaker Russell has an enviable record against English opposition in the past three years.

Since the start of 2018 his two appearances against the Eddie Jones-coached auld enemy have brought a win and a draw for Scotland – the latter after a Russell-inspired recovery from 31-0 down.

His six European Cup ties against Premiership opposition, for Glasgow and Racing, have been equally successful – with  five wins and just a single defeat.

Russell and Grant Gilchrist celebrate 2018 Calcutta Cup victory over England

“There is obviously a French-English rivalry to this game,” the Stirling-born 10 said in Corsica yesterday, where Racing are housed in a protected bubble preparing for Saturday’s final.

“But it’s different being a Scottish player in France against an English team. For me there’s a Scottish-English rivalry there.”

Russell tapped into that in the semi-finals when conjuring a sensational late match-winning try assist against Saracens.

Finn Russell of Scotland is closed down by Billy Vunipola and James Haskell of England
Russell is closed down by Billy Vunipola and James Haskell during a Scotland-England clash

And with this game set to get the go-ahead, after both clubs came through testing Covid-clear yesterday, he has an opportunity to climb over another English club and plant The Saltire at the summit of European rugby.

Notwithstanding, of course, that Exeter have not one but four Scots in their squad, including national captain Stuart Hogg!

Russell, 28, insists his focus is exclusively on executing the game plan for a club beaten in two of the past four European Cup finals.

Russell provided inspiration for Racing’s late semi-final winning try against Saracens

“You can’t look at anything else to get you going or drive you,” he said. “It’s how we can play to win. This is a massive moment for the club.”

Racing are leaving nothing to chance, having feared a Covid outbreak a fortnight ago would derail their hopes.

The Parisian outfit was forced to postpone its Top 14 match against La Rochelle 11 days ago after nine members of staff tested positive for coronavirus.

Virimi Vakatawa is mobbed after scoring for Racing against Saracens earlier in this season’s tournament

They were able to return to action last weekend, but then immediately flew to Corsica to escape the rising infection rate in the French capital.

“I believe we are all going to be okay for the weekend,” said Russell.

Exeter know the threat posed by the mercurial Russell but in what he terms the “biggest game in the club’s history”, director of rugby Rob Baxter says they will address it as a team.

Jack Nowell is available for Exeter after injury

“It won’t be a one shot thing,” said Baxter, who has wing Jack Nowell back fit and available for selection. “There are things we are going to have to do as a team. We are not zoned in on one guy.”

“We are not zoned in on one guy,” said Baxter, who has wing Jack Nowell back fit and available for selection. “There are things we are going to have to do as a team.”

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Hogg primed to tackle Russell before welcoming him back into Scotland squad

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell may be friends reunited in the Scotland squad – but they will be at each other’s throats this weekend.

The pair come at Saturday’s Champions Cup final from opposing sides with Hogg spearheading Exeter’s ‘double’ bid and Russell pulling the strings for Racing 92.

Fourteen years have passed since Hogg last played against Russell – half a lifetime during which he has played 76 times for his country and toured with the Lions.

Yet it is the move to Devon which the Scotland captain says has taken his game to another level.

“I came down here to improve myself as a player and a person and get in a position to contribute to winning trophies,” said the fullback.

Racing 92 fly-half Finn Russell has Exeter in his sights this weekend

“We’re in a perfect position right now. This is a huge, massive opportunity and I’m absolutely buzzing.

“I’m playing some of the best rugby I’ve played in a long, long time. Of all my rugby decisions this is hands down the best I’ve ever made.”

Everything is going for Rob Baxter’s Chiefs right now, with confirmation yesterday that lock forward Jonny Hill faces no additional punishment for his no-arms clear out on Bath’s Taulupe Faletau at the weekend.

Hogg: ‘I have no doubt that if we faithfully execute our game plan we can come away with the trophy’

But that is no surprise to Hogg, who has kept a close eye on Exeter since first being approached by the club in 2017.

“With the talent here I knew it was only a matter of time,” he said. “I have no doubt that if we faithfully execute our game plan we can come away with the trophy.”

Russell will have plenty to say about that, which won’t surprise Hogg either, as “he’s one of the most naturally gifted rugby players I’ve ever come across”.

Russell’s magic steered Racing 92 past Saracens in last month’s semi-final

Hogg said: “Finn is the one guy we have to be wary of as he can change a game in a heartbeat and, without a shadow of a doubt, will be on his ‘A’ game.”

What Racing need to bear in mind is that Exeter will too. Very few teams that Chiefs suffocate with their defensive blanket live to tell the tale.

Bristol’s European Challenge Cup final against Toulon, in Aix on Friday, will be played in front of a crowd after authorities in France granted tournament bosses permission to sell 1,000 tickets.

But Exeter-Racing remains behind closed doors at Ashton Gate.

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