Vern Cotter has warned his players that they will be confronted tomorrow with a French “juggernaut” hell-bent on rolling over the top of them.
Scotland face France in Paris looking for a first win there since 1999 and Kiwi head coach Cotter believes that if they are to end that 18-year losing streak they will have to find a way to negate a massively physical home team.
Cotter has made just one enforced change to the starting XV that beat Ireland last Saturday, with John Barclay coming in at blindside flanker in place of Ryan Wilson, who has an infected elbow, and John Hardie filling the vacancy on the bench.
Last weekend’s man-of-the-match, full-back Stuart Hogg, will win his 50th cap in the Stade de France and, at just 24, become the youngest Scot to reach that milestone.
Cotter said: “They’re a big juggernaut that’s going to look to roll over the top of us.
“We’re the type of team they like to play against. They want to go harder and faster and make it as difficult as possible.
“They are very powerful going forward. We’d like to see how they look going backwards. Turning them round will be key.
“They believe this is the game that will set their Six Nations alight. We’ve heard the noises coming out of their camp. It’s pretty clear what’s coming.”
France have also made the one change, with the inclusion of Loann Goujon in place of Damien Chouly at flanker adding even more beef to a side who had England rocking for periods of their opener at Twickenham last weekend before the champions eked out a 19-16 win, which made it three straight losses for Guy Noves’ men following autumn defeats to the Wallabies and All Blacks.
“Getting them frustrated is key,” added Cotter. “We don’t want to give them an easy run, put it that way. So, if they’re making yardage off one-off carries, zero-pass plays, a lineout drive with [flanker Louis] Picamoles coming off that, they will grow an arm and a leg. That’s why we have to really anticipate and defend well, defend smart, try to get them frustrated and get them to push their game.
“We want to keep control of our game, make them push their game and areas will open up for us to hurt them.”
Huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of young props Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson, who will both be playing their first Tests on away soil.
Cotter added: “It’s tough, and sometimes the field at the Stade de France isn’t the best. But they’ve worked hard this week. They sorted the scrum out halfway through against Ireland and we’ve discussed it with the referees, looked at why things have occurred. The players are looking forward to having another go at it.”
France will hold a significant weight advantage up front but Cotter threw in another of his wry turns of phrase when he said; “It’s the old adage about the size of the fight in the dog, not the size of the dog in the fight.
‘Once again, scrummaging is just not one person. It’s about a group.”
Cotter is, of course, steeped in French rugby culture, having played and coached there for many years and will be back there next season with Montpellier. He is also good friends with France coach Noves, who he revealed was still “a bit grumpy” about the loss to Scotland at BT Murrayfield in last year’s tournament.
Earlier in the week skipper Greig Laidlaw spoke of starting strong in a bid to get the always emotionally volatile French crowd turning on their own.
“When they start whistling and they’re not happy with their own team, you know you’re doing things right,” said Cotter.
“You need to start well. They will have periods in the game when they will have the ball and they will score or do well.
“We need to get through that, stick to our gameplan, get the ball down the other end, keep their crowd quiet, make sure we finish strongly in the last quarter. Anything can happen.
“We need to stick to what we’ve prepared to do.”
The loss of the combative Wilson is a blow for this kind of encounter but Cotter said it hasn’t been too disruptive to preparations, with Barclay now getting the chance to build on his superb show off the bench last week and Hardie, who played 66 minutes on his comeback for Edinburgh a week past Friday, champing at the bit.
“Ryan couldn’t train right from the outset, so he was just observing and hoping to get back in. We made the call after the Wednesday session, when he was back in hospital,” said Cotter.
“John Hardie had been primed to come on to the bench with John Barclay starting. It didn’t force a change, because they are very similar players, Ryan and John [Barclay].
“John may be slightly better in a turnover situation, Ryan might be slightly better at lineout – although they’ll be contesting that, they’re quite good friends, so they contest their strong points.
“Both are very good leaders. And having John Hardie’s enthusiasm coming in is great.
“I can’t hold him [Hardie] back. He’s tearing the paddock up, which is great.
“He has worked on himself a fair bit and he looks great. Late in the game having someone with his energy and workrate will be important against this French team.”