Six Nations: Double act out to rattle French

Scotland centre Alex Dunbar tries to break free from the attentions of Sebastien Vahaamahina during last season's Six Nations Championship tussle with the French at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland centre Alex Dunbar tries to break free from the attentions of Sebastien Vahaamahina during last season's Six Nations Championship tussle with the French at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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ALEX Dunbar is nervous and twitchy. He chews his nails and his eyes shoot from side to side like a cornered fox with the hounds baying. He looks uncomfortable.

The adrenaline pumps through his veins, his heartbeat is reacting to the stimulus and that could be a bead of sweat forming on his brow. Forget the French, right now facing the Scottish media appears to be the centre’s main cause for concern.

Dunbar has always been happier doing his talking on the pitch where he is fast becoming fluent. The former Annan and Selkirk player has become one of the stalwarts of this Scotland team and, with just 11 caps to his name, he has done so in double quick time.

Dunbar and his midfield amigo Mark Bennett are just two of the five Glasgow boys in the Scotland back division and he is asked if the understanding developed as Warriors can help translate into success on the field for Scotland?

“Definitely”, is Dunbar’s unequivocal response. “There are quite a few boys from Glasgow in the back line so it just makes that understanding we’ve got that little bit easier when you come under pressure, what each of you wants to do with the ball and different traits of the game. Playing alongside all the Glasgow boys just makes it that little bit easier but there are a lot of good platers out there, its not that big an issue.

“Glasgow have played some really good stuff in the backs and its exciting going forward. I think we have shown at times what we can do. So we just want to build on what we did in the autumn and push forward in the Six Nations as a back line and step up and put a statement down.”

Despite all the rapid changes in the game over the last decade or so there are some things that anyone from the 1970s or 1980s would instantly recognise and the little ‘n’ large midfield mix is just one of them. Teams tend to pick a big bruiser at inside centre to bash his way over the gain line and a slippery, elusive runner at 13 to do the damage with ball in hand. Almost uniquely Dunbar is equally comfortable in either position. He notched up the fastest time ever recorded by a Scottish back when scoring that corker of a try in Rome last year at 13 [with Matt Scott inside him] but partnered with Bennett in the opening autumn international against Argentina Dunbar impressed in the inside channel.

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Scotland’s little ‘n’ large duo will find themselves facing Les Bleus’ own version on Saturday except, the French being French, they do things differently.

Wesley Fofana, he of the dancing feet and the pace, plays opposite Dunbar at 12 while, outside those two, the giant figure of Mathieu Bastareaud (120kgs) lines up opposite the slender figure of Bennett (85kgs… soaking wet). He did the damage five years ago with a brace at Murrayfield and the mismatch with Bennett is enough to have concerned Scots scouring the Geneva Convention. “Whoever is in front of him will do a good job,” says Dunbar with more confidence than he probably feels. “We’ve just got to get out there and get in their face, don’t sit off him and let him build up a head of steam.

“They have a pretty experienced back line. Everyone knows about the centres, Fofana and Bastareaud. They have played there for years and both offer different things. You know you are going to have to be switched on there. And then they have an exciting back three so we can’t kick loose to them, we’ve got to have a good kick chase as well to cut down their opportunities, to put them under pressure and force them into errors.

“You come up against them [big guys] all the time so you’ve just got to get your basic skills right. You have to go low and hit the legs, impact in the tackle to try and stop them early on. It’s far easier that than letting them get a 20-metre run up and getting a shot one on one.”

Naturally enough, the flipside of the coin is also true and, while the giant Frenchman may be the size of an oil tanker, he is also as nimble as one. Scotland will look to have Bastareaud pulled out of position and then exploit the spaces either side of him before he can turn the tanker around. Several Scots have said that, if they are close going into the final quarter, they back their conditioning to see them over the line. That’s the plan but it will come to naught if France boss the opening exchanges and race into an unassailable lead.

“You definitely have to go out there and try to match them [physically],” says the centre. “They have named a real physical side, you know they are going to come out all guns blazing at the start of the game so we need to be right at the top of our game.

“In previous years maybe we have started slowly in some of these games so we know that we can’t do that. We need to start the game well and contest every breakdown and every minute of the game and hopefully in the last ten minutes of the game we can really push on.”

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