A year ago Matt Russell was hot property: so much so he swapped a future as Sam Tomkins’ back-up at Wigan Warriors for a season in the sun at Gold Coast in Australia. He spent the year in Queensland, playing Under-20 Rugby League, unable to break into the Titans’ NRL team. Meanwhile back in Britain, Tomkins was frequently absent from the Wigan side and Russell knows he would have been playing in Super League. Now the uncapped full-back will get the chance to pitch himself against some of the best players on earth in the Rugby League World Cup.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Russell told ScotlandRL.com. “I spoke to Steve (Scotland coach Steve McCormack) via emails from over in Australia and jumped at the chance to play in the World Cup.”
Russell was frustrated by a lack of first team opportunities at Gold Coast but has no regrets about making the move. “People say I could’ve stayed at Wigan, with Sam being injured a few times, but last year he never got injured so it’s a flip of a coin. I’m still pleased I went – I’d say it was the best year I’ve ever had in my life. I think I’ve developed a lot: I was full-time, training in the NRL squad and playing with Australian test players, and learned about being a pro. I’ve worked on my life skills, living on my own – I went out there at 18,19 and had to look after myself.
“I was looking at playing NRL at some point but ended up playing Under-20s the whole season. After a few games the coach said I would definitely get a shot at the NRL but I was out for 5 or 6 weeks with a dislocated shoulder, which didn’t help. But there’s always next year if I go back. I’ve got another year there but to be honest I got a bit homesick and some opportunities have come up over here so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the next few weeks.”
Russell was born in Irvine but moved to Wigan as a youngster, joining his home town club, making his Super League debut last year on loan at Hull FC. His ‘papa’ and aunties and uncles still live near Irvine and will be travelling south of the border for the World Cup. “I don’t see why we can’t compete with Tonga and Italy and even beat them as we look a good team on paper. We’ve got a good mix of top Super league players, experienced Championship players, NRL players.”
Russell will not be the only Gold Coast Titan to make his Scotland debut this month. Prop Luke Douglas arrives today with a remarkable record as the player with the longest run of consecutive NRL appearances in Australia. “He’s quiet but a really nice guy once you get to know him,” explains Russell. “He’s the most prolific NRL player. He’s got really good skill for a forward and could go for 80 minutes if you want him to. He’s a really good player.”
Both Douglas and Russell are expected to make their Scotland debuts against Papua New Guinea on Saturday at Featherstone in a supposed ‘warm-up’ game. Russell certainly thinks the Aussies will need it: “It’s the first time my hands have been cold in training all year!”
Watch the whole interview with Matt Russell here.