A PARIS cauldron inhabited by a French team desperate to avoid humiliation might feel like the last Six Nations venue in which Scotland would be confident of returning to winning ways, but it could prove to be the perfect arena for Scott Johnson’s side to rediscover its attacking élan.
That, certainly, is the hope of the Scottish back three, Stuart Hogg, the 20-year-old full-back and pacy wingers Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. They opened the championship with four tries between them, in defeat to England at Twickenham and in the four-try flourish against the Italians at Murrayfield a week later. Scotland’s only other tries came from the centres inside them, Matt Scott and Sean Lamont.
The matches against Ireland and Wales descended into turgid and largely futile battles for the ball, but the rapier trio have discovered that they were also culpable of taking their eyes off it. While all around them fumed over scrummaging laws, sitting watching the video of the game against Wales the team’s attacking stars ran out of fingers counting up opportunities which they failed to exploit.
“It was frustrating,” said Hogg. “We actually had 18 counter-attack opportunities and eight kick-offs, so plenty of opportunities to attack.
“A couple of times we should have released the ball a bit earlier and couple of other times we should have gone the other way, but that’s part and parcel of playing rugby. It’s about taking chances when they are on offer, not forcing them but relaxing and enjoying it.”
Maitland continued: “They kicked a lot of ball to us. Obviously we didn’t get much ball [from scrums], but I had a lot of chances to do things and maybe didn’t take the right options a few times. There were a lot of opportunities for myself. It was frustrating seeing that.”
“It wasn’t just Sean,” Visser chipped in. “We were all frustrated after the game, but when we looked back [in analysis] the counter-attack almost seemed like another set-piece for us because they kicked us so much ball.
“We should have handled that so much better. That was our opportunity to get in the game. It’s a shame we really only discovered that after the game. Being so focused on the set-piece, and the power that you expect it to give you in the game, I think we never quite switched to the other opportunities.
“When the ball is turned over and they kick downfield we’re feeling that we’ve failed to do what we want, but if they’re kicking us the ball, there are opportunities again to counter-attack. That’s something we’ve hopefully learned from in this game. We can definitely be more proactive in our back three and back five, but we’ve got to have a whole team approach to it.
“France kick a lot of high balls but most of them are contestable so it’s a different kettle of fish, but that’s a chance, to catch and try to play off it.”
It is easy to suggest the players are naïve in needing after-match analysis to recognise such opportunities, but it is an indication of where this team is. Hogg only made his international debut in last year’s championship, Visser joined the boat in Fiji on the summer tour and Maitland pitched up for the start of this championship, after just five games in his new Glasgow surroundings.
Maitland, in particular, is having to run before he can walk in a foreign style of game. Anyone who has watched the opening rounds of this year’s Super Rugby will recognise the difference between a game that flows wing to wing and the northern hemisphere negativity of seeking penalties from the set-piece and breakdown, currently draining the game of life. Even with Maitland’s Crusaders yet to win, his successors on the flanks, Israel Dagg, Adam Whitelock, Tom Marshall and Johnny McNicholl, have enjoyed more ball in two games than he has in four with Scotland.
“I could sit here and try to explain how different super rugby is to over here,” said the winger, “but the way we [Scotland] are playing, our style and our attacking plan is based on the set-piece.
“You get the ball a lot in the wide channels [in Super Rugby] and get put in space a lot more. Over here you’ve got to go looking for the ball. People have been saying it’s not really a Six Nations for a winger, but one thing I’ve tried to get better at is coming off my wing to look for the ball and not get frustrated just standing out there.
“It is different [to New Zealand] but we have a lot of quality in our team. We were maybe just lacking that last 5 per cent against Wales when we get to the try-line. We maybe had a pick-and-go rather than spreading it, which gave Wales’ defence time to realign and the opportunity was lost.
“Sometimes we’re not thinking too well between the forwards and backs, but if we get that right we have the ability to put teams away. Sometimes it is frustrating, but there were a lot of opportunities there and, once we start nailing them and understanding how we play as a team, it will be good.”
That underlines both Maitland’s insight and the newness of this side. Sean Lamont, now on 75 caps, is the sole player with more than a full year’s experience of Test rugby and, while the pack has a core of experienced campaigners, they are not winning campaigners. So Johnson, with Dean Ryan and Matt Taylor bringing new ideas, are changing the focus and style of the team in order to develop a winning consistency.
France may be timely opponents, as they will care less about Scottish threats, mostly believing them to be negligible in their desperate pursuit of a first victory in their worst-ever Six Nations, and may give in to an innate desire to take risks.
And now Scotland have players to finish, something hard-working teams over the past decade and more have yearned for. The key to winning in Paris, therefore, remains the same as it did in the opening game in London – playing on the front foot at a tempo that enables Scotland to release a dangerous back three.
The squad flew over snow-covered Parisian fields yesterday, and with rain forecast to hit tomorrow evening, shortly before the 9pm (local time) kick-off, Scotland’s ambition may be thwarted. But with a nervous French team more worried about itself than Scottish threats, eager for a first win in their worst Six Nations, the Scottish players believe they can finish the championship on a warm note.
“We know they are going to come out all guns blazing, trying not to finish as wooden spooners,” said Maitland, “but if we stick to our systems and game-plan we have a good chance of winning. I know it’s going to be difficult, because we haven’t won in Paris for a long time, but I’m really excited; I can’t wait.”
Hogg added: “Obviously, we’re going out to cause an upset in France. It’s a massive opportunity for us to end the championship on a real high.”
None of the trio has any memories of Scotland’s last win in Paris, in 1999, which only highlights both how young the team are and how difficult winning is here. Visser sounded a note of caution.
“If it’s dry it could be a fantastic spectacle, but if wet it could be a very different game,” he added.
“France are like a wounded animal right now and if they suddenly click they could be the best team in the world. So we have to be very careful and make sure there is a certain element of structure to our game, otherwise it’s going to be sevens and we don’t want that either.
“But,” he added, with a confident smile, “we want to show them that we can match them. Looking at the assets we have in the back five, and our back row with Johnnie Beattie in there, we have a lot of ball-players in our team so that [open game] is not something we are scared of at this stage in the championship.”