IT’S nearly 20 years since Scotland last defeated France in Paris - 36-22 at the Stade de France in St Denis - but can Vern Cotter’s squad emulate the 1999 Championship-winning side of Gregor Townsend, Alan Tait, Duncan Hodge et al?
Sixteen years ago, with the Parisian sun beating down upon backs cloaked in heavy cotton jerseys and brows laden with a film of exertion, Scotland produced their greatest half of rugby in the professional era.
Those who were there will speak zealously of Glenn Metcalfe’s scything breaks through the heart of the French midfield.
They will eulogise Gregor Townsend’s sumptuous dummy and dart for the line, and rave about the ever-present Martin Leslie’s unerring support play as the visitors amassed 33 first-half points on their way to the final Five Nations title.
Such a cacophony of tartan-clad mayhem has not reverberated round the cavernous bowl that forms Stade de France since.
Vern Cotter’s exuberant, new-look Scotland, tasked with building upon foundations laid during an encouraging autumn, and accompanied by an almost alien sense of hope, open their Six Nations campaign with a visit to the French capital this Saturday.
What the head coach wouldn’t give for the sort of blistering forty-minute blitz dealt by the class of 1999.
“It has to be a strong start from Scotland,” says former winger Shaun Longstaff, who won fifteen caps between 1998 and 2000 and was among the substitutes that afternoon.
“It has to be 20-25 minutes of dominating possession and field position. Then the crowd goes quiet, and close to half-time, they start to whistle and jeer. Then you’ve got momentum. The pressure is starting to mount.
“The French confidence comes from the environment around them, including the fans.”
Longstaff, now a sports agent, enjoyed two spells in France, most notably spending a season in the industrial town of Castres – an idyllic southwest spot where rugby is religion and the players deities.
“The fans had a tribal, infectious passion for their club,” he says. “It’s a community game; the whole town is behind the team. It’s the be-all and end-all.
“Rugby is put on a pedestal, it’s everything to them. It was normal to have two or three hundred people at training, watching every session.”
A far cry then from the fledgling Celtic League of the early Noughties, and a Scottish rugby fiefdom struggling to adapt to the onset of professionalism.
But even now, aside from the continental climate and the seductive financial pull that draws Test rugby’s behemoths inexorably to the Top 14, the public’s devotion to its sport is striking.
“You walk down the street – before you’ve even played a game for them – and everyone knows who you are,” adds Max Evans, the versatile 44-cap Scot who has been with Castres since 2011.
“You see the emblem in all the windows of the businesses around town and the blue and white Castres flags all over the town.
“There’s the music – they love their drums and trumpets – as a player on the field you get a similar vibe to an international game. It’s that big a stage because of how many people are there to watch.”
In true hot-blooded Gallic style, however, that passion can spill over.
“It can go a bit too far,” concedes Scott Murray, another of the 1999 vintage and a stalwart of the Scottish second-row for a decade.
He too spent the twilight of his career in Castres, and revelled in the fans’ fervour. But it was at troubled Montauban where he saw such visceral volatility turn sour.
“We lost a game (at Montauban) once, after the referee made a pretty bad decision,” he says.
“He had to be escorted out of the stadium, but there were about a thousand supporters waiting for him in the car park and kicking his car on the way out.
“One of the scariest things I’ve ever done was when we played at Toulon (for Castres) and all the fans are waiting for you before the game. They start screaming at you when you come in - it’s a pretty daunting place to come.”
Indeed, French rugby isn’t all banking stacks of Euros, quaffing fine wine and soaking up sunrays.
Evans concedes there are ‘a lot of cheap shots’, while Tom Smith, a fan favourite of that 1999 squad, recalls the trials and tribulations a prop might face in the bruising badlands off the beaten track.
“The scrummaging in club games in France was almost tougher than the Six Nations,” says the two-time British and Irish Lions tourist, who played for Brive between 1999 and 2001.
“You get props with no real mobility, who don’t do much around the park, but will really scrum. You tended to find these heavy, strong opponents at some of the smaller clubs – I think it did me a lot of good.
“Travelling to Aurillac – one of the coldest places in France – was one of the grimmest away matches you could have.
“You turn off a motorway and drive through forests for about an hour and a half. It was old wooden stands with supporters stamping on them – old-school, tough away rugby.”
Smith, now head coach at Bergerac in the national third tier, believes that with the huge injection of cash into the French game, the allure that drew him across the Channel all those years ago has evolved.
“It certainly wasn’t a financial decision back then,” he states.
“I started as an amateur player – I would never have dreamt I’d have the opportunity to live and play in a different country, learn a new language, experience a different way of life.
“I think it improved me as a player and a person.
“Players who come here, unless they sign for the top four of five clubs, have to be prepared for things like fitness, nutrition, some of the backup not being where it should be relative to a big English club.
“I think you could draw some comparisons between the Top 14 and English Premiership in football.
It’s become so focused on superstars that maybe the national team’s been neglected slightly.
“But a player like Richie Gray (at Castres) is testing himself against the best second-rows in the world week in, week out. Playing such a high level of rugby will benefit him for Scotland, and he’s also going to grow as a person.”
Evans was part of several Scotland teams to fall short of a rare French victory – he isn’t alone in reckoning the Scots ‘butchered’ a golden chance to take the spoils at Murrayfield a year ago.
But what advice would the heroes of 1999 offer Cotter’s charges?
“The French pack will be enormous, as we saw when Toulouse played Glasgow,” says Longstaff.
“Their ability to slow down the ball was really useful, and where we can hopefully get an edge is by playing a fast game. You want Finn Russell getting us field position, then tiring them out, keeping the ball moving, and looking for a mismatch on one of those massive forwards.”
“In defence,” says Smith, “we need lots of line-speed, get the big, physical opponents on the floor, and don’t commit too many men to the ruck. After that, opportunities will come - I don’t think they’re as fit as we are.”
“The reason we did so well in 1999 was the confidence we had – we had won every game apart from England, which was very close,” Murray adds.
“I think Scots in general just lack a little bit of confidence, and with the players they have at the moment, and Vern taking over they should be very confident.”
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