Six Nations: Long odds against Scotland

Peter Horne casually ties his bootlaces as Scotland's captain Greig Laidlaw practises his place-kicking. Picture: AFP

Peter Horne casually ties his bootlaces as Scotland's captain Greig Laidlaw practises his place-kicking. Picture: AFP

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THE Scottish team were made to feel right at home in Paris after arriving on Thursday evening because the thermometer has been hovering around the zero mark ever since which is, appropriately enough, the chance that most people give Scotland of winning here this evening.

They have a point. Scotland have never won a Six Nations match in Paris and they boast a worse record against Les Bleus than any other team in the tournament. It’s a good job Paris is a pleasant place in the Spring because the Scots have won just twice here (1995 & 1999) in the course of the last forty-four years stretching back to 1971. It is testament to the impact made by new coach Vern Cotter that France are ten points ahead at the bookies rather than 110-point favourites.

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The odds were stacked against an upset this evening even before Cotter lost several key characters. England made a great brouhaha about all their injuries but Scotland landed in Paris without 13 front-line players and have far fewer reserves than Stuart Lancaster can call upon.

France can not only dip into one of the deepest pools of domestic talent anywhere in world rugby but, thanks to the riches on offer in the Top 14, they now have a handy selection of foreign players to choose from, three of whom are starting tomorrow.

South Africans Rory Kockott (9), Bernard Le Roux (7) and Scott Spedding (15) find themselves in the French XV, while kiwi prop Uini Atonia starts on the bench.

France don’t hold all the cards. Scotland have talent, even if some of it has limited experience, not least the promising centre Mark Bennett and stand-off Finn Russell, both of whom are Championship newbies. Russell is not the weakest link in the Scotland side, as the French press have insisted this week, but he will make mistakes, if only because he has never been afraid to chance his arm. If he can balance his natural attacking instincts with the need to play the percentages, then the young Scot has the perfect stage to announce his arrival.

“It will be different for Finn,” said his coach Duncan Hodge. “The Six Nations is very different to what he experienced last summer and autumn. There is a different level of pressure but I’m sure he’ll cope fine. We are lucky that we have had continuity of selection with the guys around him.

“Young half-backs will make mistakes. For me, it’s about how he reacts. When he has made errors it has not affected his play. He has not gone into a shell, which is the last thing we want. It is about how we adapt.”

If he is even half as insouciant as he made out yesterday afternoon at the press briefing (“I’m pretty chilled out with everything, I don’t get nervous about things”) then Russell will cope just fine, although the precedent isn’t entirely promising.

The last time he played in France he earned a yellow card for a tip tackle and Toulouse scored 13 points while he was sitting on the naughty step. The old cliché about French indiscipline is just that, a cliché, because the Scots’ own indiscipline makes Dennis the Menace look like Mother Teresa. Last year against France, they lost the game largely because of the 13 penalties they conceded, compared to just five by France. Discipline, or rather indiscipline, will again be crucial this evening.

Hodge added: “They [France] don’t give away many penalties. Structurally, they are different to some teams in defence, but they are good. Discipline is a massive part. The winning and losing of penalties, field position, kicks at goal. It is something we have talked about. We let ourselves down a bit in the autumn. Even in the first half against Tonga we gave away far too many penalties.”

If they have any sense, France will not play too fast and loose, at least until they have established some forward dominance. They look well able to do so at the set scrum but the visitors, after losing just one throw all autumn (and stealing 12 opposition balls), will hope to shade the lineout.

If the set-piece battle is shared more or less evenly, then the war will be won at the breakdown – as is so often the case in modern rugby – and you feel that the French breakaway trio of Damien Chouly, Bernard Le Roux and the peerless Thierry Dusautoir, have an edge over their opposition.

If France have three big beasts in the back row, the Scots have almost none. Johnnie Beattie is the next best thing but he can be infuriatingly inconsistent. Hugely influential one minute, missing in action for the next ten. He plays today because Adam Ashe and David Denton are injured, Ryan Wilson suspended and Josh Strauss still serving time before qualifying as a Scot. Neither Blair Cowan nor Rob Harley are the type to run through brick walls so the heavy lifting will fall to the Scottish No 8, who needs to put down a marker if he wants to be involved in the World Cup.

Elsewhere, the half-backs will have a pivotal role to play, as always, and Knokott has the ability to be a match-winner for France, just as Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw led from the front against Argentina and both sides field wingers who can finish off whatever the inside backs start.

France would appear to hold the advantage. Bennett has played well for Glasgow this season but looked less sure of himself against Argentina in the autumn. The Six Nations is a another giant step up from that meeting, even assuming he wasn’t tasked with shepherding a beast as big as Mathieu Bastareaud.

Cotter has set great store in returning to Scottish rugby traditions and he’s undoubtedly managed that much in one regard. The Scots are long odds underdogs for this evening’s match and, given their record in Paris, it is no less than they deserve.

RBS 6 Nations Championship

At Stade de France, today, 5pm

Live on BBC1 and BBC Radio Scotland FM

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wal)

FRANCE

15 Scott Spedding

14 Yoann Huget

13 Mathieu Bastareaud

12 Wesley Fofana

11 Teddy Thomas

10 Camille Lopez

9 Rory Kockott

1 Alexandre Menini

2 Guilhem Guirado

3 Rabah Slimani

4 Pascal Papé

5 Yoann Maestri

6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt)

8 Damien Chouly

7 Bernard Le Roux

Subs

16 Benjamin Kayser

17 Uini Atonio

18 Eddy Ben Arous

19 Romain Taofifenua

20 Loann Goujon

21 Morgan Parra

22 Rémi Talès

23 Rémi Lamerat

SCOTLAND

15 Stuart Hogg

14 Tommy Seymour

13 Mark Bennett

12 Alex Dunbar

11 Tim Visser

10 Finn Russell

9 Greig Laidlaw (capt)

1 Alasdair Dickinson

2 Ross Ford

3 Euan Murray

4 Richie Gray

5 Jonny Gray

6 Rob Harley

8 Johnnie Beattie

7 Blair Cowan

Subs

16 Fraser Brown

17 Gordon Reid

18 Geoff Cross

19 Jim Hamilton

20 Alasdair Strokosch

21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne

22 Peter Horne

23 Dougie Fife

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