Russell is ready to live out an American dream
Varsity match: Giant Antipodeans and US forward are among today's 20-strong foreign legion. David Llewellyn reports
Tuesday 08 December 1998
If the genial anthropology undergraduate is to be believed he would have gone to Cambridge by choice. "At Oxford the anthropology department is not what I was looking for. Cambridge has a very good department, one that is willing to take risks; Oxford is not famous for that sort of thing. But in fact I probably would have gone to California." And why didn't he? "Simply because I won the Rhodes Scholarship."
And having dabbled for a couple of years in Stateside rugby ("It's more of a social event in the States," he reckons), Russell decided to have a crack at the game for his college, Magdalen. So effective was he at flinging around his 6ft 4in, 18st frame that he immediately made it into the University second string side, The Greyhounds.
Unbeknown to him he suffered a stress fracture in that match. The very next game the strain proved too much and Russell suffered a full-blown fracture.
"I blame peer pressure," claims Russell. "After that first match my team- mates all said I was a pooftah with my long hair, and since it was not any kind of statement I had it cut off. Breaking my leg in the following match brought to mind the Old Testament and Samson and so I grew it again."
The complications that arose from that unfortunate break saw Russell in a hip-long plaster cast for months. The inactivity took its toll on his muscles and surrounding soft tissue and unpleasant complications arose. "The muscles start to atrophy as a result of being laid up," explains Russell, "and if you try to come back too quickly you suffer this particular syndrome where the soft tissue is damaged."
In short he was in agony. "It was mind-numbing," he recalls. "The pain was as near to childbirth as I will ever be. Every day was just more parturition pain." Surgery was the only answer and Russell had a series of operations on both legs, putting him out of action for the best part of a year, only playing his comeback game late last spring, too late for last year's Varsity match.
He has since spent a lot of time working on his game with the coach, Steve Hill.
"I think my progress has surprised people," he says. "I am hugely excited about the match. And nervous. I'd be a fool not to be. That is going to provide the adrenalin that makes the hits a little bigger, the runs a little quicker. I am probably not the fastest guy on the team. Not the fittest either. But I get there.
"There will be a full house at Twickenham but that will not bother me. I will be able to shut that out. What matters to me is that there are 14 other guys on the team and I don't want to let them down."
He is not even worried about his pony-tail attracting unwanted attention from the opposition. He wears a scrum cap but admits: "It pokes out at the back."
More to the point, his team-mates insist he has signed a provocative declaration. "I have no recollection of doing any such thing," declares Russell, "but the word is that if we win the Varsity match I will let them cut my hair again. They will have to pin me down to do it!"
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