TWO wins from four matches against zero from four might point to a Scottish victory in Paris this evening, but Scotland captain Kelly Brown has been around long enough to share scepticism that such an outcome could be guaranteed.
A Stade de France bristling with 80,000 supporters, the vast majority of whom are French men, women and children eager to witness a finale to the 2013 RBS Six Nations that proves that their heroes are not the worst team in Europe, is surely enough to check any soaring Scottish expectations.
But on the other side of the coin there is no hiding the French frailties this season. The very fact that their efforts to surprise people with a different style of play has come unstuck has left head coach Philippe Saint-Andre striving to convince that he knows which way to turn now. But he is scratching his bald pate nonetheless and his hopes of leading Les Bleus to the 2015 World Cup may hinge on the outcome this evening.
Just as France recovered from defeat to Tonga in the 2011 World Cup to eventually regain form under a new chief last year, so Scotland have used a loss to the South Sea Islanders to effect change at the top and begin the revival. Scottish supporters would have taken the promise of two wins from five Six Nations games at the start of the championship, but there rightly is a hope that they can go one step further and overcome the lack of possession and finish against Ireland and Wales with a final flourish.
Brown is eagerly looking forward to an exciting match-up in the back row with South African Antonie Claassens, making his first Test start, Thierry Dusautoir and No 8 Louis Picamoles, with Johnnie Beattie and Alasdair Strokosch back in harness together. Joining Gary Armstrong and Gavin Hastings as the only triumphant Scotland captains in Paris in the past 43 years is an obvious goal, and Brown has strived to exhort his side to believe that improvement in the basic skills of the game will bring that tonight.
“If you look at the championship, I feel that we have made really big strides,” he said, “but it’s about constantly improving and we want to improve from our previous performance, so that’s what we’re looking to do.
“We know as a side what we are trying to do. I feel that over the course of the championship we have shown that we are making great strides in a lot of areas. There is no doubt that winning back-to-back matches was a big thing for us. We sat down right at the start and spoke of the four key areas that we had to get right, and we know that we are by no means the finished article but I and the coaches have seen steady improvement as we have gone through.”
The key areas remain the same as in every match and what Scott Johnson, Dean Ryan and Matt Taylor have tried to instil in this squad has been the attention to detail necessary to improve their breakdown work. That will be central this evening as Scotland’s hopes of success will stem first from their ability to compete with a French scrum champing at the bit to demolish someone, and Grant Gilchrist’s ability to hit the ground running in his first Test match, aided by the experienced Jim Hamilton – against a new French second row pairing too – and then the back row’s skills in contesting the tackle area.
Nowhere is the battleground more intense, physical and all-consuming as in the Stade de France when the rain is falling, as that plays into the hands of a French side who believes power to be its main asset.
If Scotland can compete up front, then this will be an engrossing finale to the Six Nations Championship. The title may have been decided at Cardiff some hours before, but Scotland’s progress will hinge largely on the 80 minutes in the St Denis darkness. And if this tournament has taught us anything, it is the foolishness of predicting how games will pan out.
The French yesterday lost experienced replacement centre Florian Fritz to a foot infection, but called up another Toulousain taking the country by storm in 18-year-old Gael Fickou, who was due to play in their under-20 side, and a glance at their replacements merely highlights the very different challenges facing the two coaches this evening. The French substitutes could walk into many teams in the championship, while Scotland face the task of making the most of significantly more meagre options.
But if resources guaranteed success England and France would have won every title, and the French would certainly not be fighting furiously to avoid bottom spot (the French do not believe they can ‘win’ the wooden spoon as they drew one match, and insist it is only for teams who have lost every match).
Selection is always key, but where Saint-Andre has been lambasted for sticking with Frederic Michalak at stand-off, and seems to have something against Francois Trinh-Duc, there is no hiding from the variety of skills that Michalak, on his game, alongside scrum-half Morgan Parra bring to the Test arena. But they require ball on the front foot to play, and that comes back to the eagerly-anticipated forward battle.
Brown was asked whether he felt a responsibility to win for Johnson, whose hopes of keeping the Scotland job longer term may hinge on this championship. But Brown shrugged and provided the answer most Scots would expect.
“Every time we play for Scotland we want to win,” said Brown. “We have really enjoyed working with him but what happens in the future is for others to decide.
“I have enjoyed working with him. As everyone knows he has a bit of humour and a turn of phrase, but he is very honest. He will tell us exactly what he thinks and where he wants us to improve. I think he has also worked very well with the other coaches. It is a really good blend that they have there.
“But the focus for us is winning this Test match. When you are over in France it is always a real challenge and we are up against a French side that, without a shadow of doubt, are upset and angry, so I’m sure we are in for an incredibly intense Test match. Everyone is aware that when you play in France the French crowd will be absolutely screaming for their side, but if we can put them under a bit of pressure then every now and again the crowd will turn against them. So we need to start well and make sure they are under pressure right from the first whistle.”
It is not rocket science, as they say, and Brown’s troops are well aware that making history will require a big performance, one that states unequivocally this Scotland team are on the rise.
RBS 6 Nations
At Stade de France, today, kick-off 8pm
BBC 2, 7.30pm
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
15 Y Huget (Toulouse)
14 V Clerc (Toulouse)
13 M Bastareaud (Toulon)
12 W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne)
11 M Medard (Toulouse)
10 F Michalak (Toulon)
9 M Parra (Clermont Auvergne)
1 T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne)
2 B Kayser (Clermont Auvergne)
3 N Mas (Perpignan)
4 S Vahaamahina (Perpignan)
5 Y Maestri (Toulouse)
6 A Claassen (Castres)
7 T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt)
8 L Picamoles (Toulouse).
16 G Guirado (Perpignan)
17 V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne)
18 L Ducalon (Castres)
19 C Samson (Castres)
20 Y Nyanga (Toulouse)
21 M Machenaud (Racing Metro)
22 F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier)
23 F Fritz or G Fickou (both Toulouse)
15 S Hogg (Glasgow)
14 S Maitland (Glasgow)
13 S Lamont (Glasgow)
12 M Scott (Edinburgh)
11 T Visser (Edinburgh)
10 D Weir (Glasgow)
9 G Laidlaw (Edinburgh)
1 R Grant (Glasgow)
2 R Ford (Edinburgh)
3 E Murray (Worcester)
4 G Gilchrist (Edinburgh)
5 J Hamilton (Gloucester)
6 A Strokosch (Perpignan)
7 K Brown (Saracens, capt)
8 J Beattie (Montpellier).
16 D Hall (Glasgow)
17 M Low (Glasgow)
18 G Cross (Edinburgh)
19 A Kellock (Glasgow)
20 R Wilson (Glasgow)
21 H Pyrgos (Glasgow)
22 R Jackson (Glasgow)
23 M Evans (Castres).