IT'S Monday afternoon in Font Romeu, halfway up the Pyrenees, and we're standing outdoors having a chat before the Scotland squad start a public training session.

Unlike back home, summer has not been abolished in the south of France, and Finn Russell is tanned and relaxed and enjoying the rays at the end of the first full week of Rugby World Cup preparations.

Just a few yards away, the other side of the sports centre's perimeter fence, are some massive boulders, and as the stand-off reminisces it becomes clear that in different circumstances, he might also have been on the other side of that fence, chipping away at those boulders and casting an envious glance at men fortunate enough to play sport for a living. For three years after leaving school Russell was a stonemason by trade, and although he had some obvious athletic ability, he never presumed, perhaps didn't even dare to dream, that he would become a professional rugby player.

His rapid rise over the past season-and-a-half has seen some sage souls claim they knew all along he would make it, but the man himself was not so sure. Indeed, at the time of the last World Cup he had embarked on his apprenticeship and was starting to see a longer-term future for himself with chisels and hammers and the other tools of his trade. He had rugby ambitions all right, but nothing loftier than getting a regular game at first-team level - an aspiration that had just taken him from Stirling County to Falkirk.

"Back then, I never thought that in four years' time I'd be here, especially when I was making the move to Falkirk from Stirling," the 22-year-old says. "That was my big move at the time and I'd never have been targeting the World Cup.

"I guess looking back now it feels so far behind me, but at the same time it's only four years. It's quite strange almost - it shows how far I've come.

"When I was in New Zealand two years ago on the John Macphail Scholarship, the target then was to get into the World Cup squad and see what happens. That's when I was in the system. But four years ago, being in my third year as a stonemason, was slightly different.

"I've still got a year of my apprenticeship left - it's quite annoying, actually. After the World Cup I hope to get back into that and try and get it finished. It would be good to get the ticket so I've got that done. I've done all the college work so I just need to serve my time."

Russell may be disinclined to give up the old day job entirely, but the rest of us can only hope that he does not become too enthused about it. Already a vital player in Vern Cotter's Scotland squad after just nine caps, he is likely only to grow in importance as he accumulates further experience.

Not that he thinks of himself as in any way out of the ordinary. Indeed, even when more and more people around him said he was destined for the top, it took a while for him to be convinced.

His mother, Sally, was first to be sure of his talent. She provided the moral support while his father, Keith, now the SRU's director of domestic rugby, coached him in the basics.

"My mum has always said I'm a natural and I'm going to make it," he says. "I guess she knows. She had belief. My dad coached me but my mum had the belief.

"Then when I moved to Falkirk, straight after my first pre-season game my coach, Bob Wyllie, said 'You're going to make it. You're going to be a Scotland player'.

"At the time I thought 'Yeah, yeah, sounds fun'. And then the more I got playing, I was told 'You're definitely Scotland material. If you don't make it, there's something wrong with the system almost'.

"My dad, he's always said my decision-making, my timing and my passing has been good. I think a lot of that is growing up with a sporty family: me, my two brothers, our sister, dad, mum, are always out when we're on holiday playing golf, badminton, tennis, anything like that. Doing that sort of stuff has helped so much."

When it comes to more rugby- specific skills, the key influence, unsurprisingly, has been Gregor Townsend: If there is one player who Russell reminds us of, it has to be the Glasgow Warriors head coach. Since Townsend was at his peak, nearly 20 years ago now, we have not had another stand-off blessed with anything like his attacking flair.

"It's been brilliant to have Gregor there while I've been coming through, to answer any questions I might have. I don't even need to ask him sometimes - he'll look at the game and see I've not done this or that and pick me up.

"He said as he was a running 10 he'd had to try to adapt his game to a kicking game as well, and the tactical side of it. It took him a few years to get it. For him to have that experience then pass it on to me hopefully means I'll learn that tactical side of the game a lot quicker than he did."

Perhaps the principal worry about a player such as Russell in the modern game is that he could be squeezed into too rigid a system, and have that unpredictable exuberance coached out of him. Fortunately, he is con- fident that will not happen under either Townsend or the Scotland head coach Vern Cotter.

"It's brilliant having Gregor and Vern as well - they're both very open-minded about the way the game is now. A lot of the time the first couple of phases might be pretty structured, but then you can open it up and see what options you have. From then on in, it's just play what you see. To be the playmaker, you've got to be able to react to whatever happens."

After some lean times for the national team, the presence of such an inspiring figure as Russell in the ranks has produced real hope for the future. He still has a long way to go before fulfilling his potential, and this Scotland team is still at the embryonic stage of their evolution, so it would be a mistake to expect too much at this autumn's World Cup.

But if all goes accordingly, and the stand-off and the other young talents continue to improve together, Scotland might find themselves in contention for Six Nations honours, and Russell could emerge as our stonemason of destiny.

That is a heavy burden for young shoulders to bear, but Russell has a simple way of dealing with the pressure. Yes, he is the central figure who calls the shots in attack, but he has bought into the team ethos and insists that, if and when the results start coming for Scotland, it will be thanks not only to his efforts but to those of everyone in the squad.

"It's not me who's going to get the team over the line," he says, shrugging a rucksack back on to his shoulders and getting ready for the march down to the training pitch. "It's not Greig Laidlaw or Richie Gray. No one individual is going to do it - it's going to be down to 23 boys."