SCOTLAND head coach Vern Cotter has handed RBS Six Nations Championship debuts to three players for tomorrow’s match against France – stand-off Finn Russell, centre Mark Bennett and openside Blair Cowan.
The starting line-up has only two changes from the last international, against Tonga in November, with Bennett returning from injury and Euan Murray coming back at tighthead prop.
Replacement scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is the only uncapped member of the matchday 23 and, although four other substitutes have fewer than ten caps, there is also ample experience on the bench in the shape of forwards Geoff Cross, Jim Hamilton and Alasdair Strokosch, who have 35, 57 and 42 caps respectively. Twelve members of the wider squad have been listed as “not considered through
injury” but, as he announced his own first Six Nations team yesterday, Cotter sounded satisfied with his selection – and sure he knows the French gameplan.
“I’m very excited,” he said of his impending introduction to the tournament. “I get to wear a kilt. I haven’t worn one before – a toga, but not a kilt. I have that in the bag.
“I’m really looking forward to the game, and really looking forward to going back to Paris,” continued the New Zealander, who played and coached in France for a total of 17 years.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the players roll their sleeves up and give a good French team a run for its money. I look forward to the competition, look forward to seeing how we develop, how we handle certain difficult situations.
“I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy seeing people step up, which we were seeing during the week. We have to keep stepping up and I like that, those behaviours. So generally looking forward to it. It’s the first game of the
Six Nations. Neither team has had much time to prepare.
They will try to impose their physicality on us.
“They believe they’re stronger in their tight forwards. They’ll attack us through the driving maul and attack our rucks and try and get ball to their very
“We don’t want them in our half going forward. We will have to be sound on fundamentals – our defensive lineout and defensive mauls, and the gain-line contest. We can’t let them over the advantage line or create momentum.
“We know, if the crowd gets in behind them and they develop excitement in their ranks, they’re able to cut loose. We have to try and be as good as we can on the day.”
On the first big sporting occasion in Paris since the Charlie Hebdo murders last month, the crowd at the Stade de France is expected to offer an especially emotional rendition of the Marseillaise before the game. Cotter explained that captain Greig Laidlaw and other senior members of the squad had talked to their team-mates about the need to remain composed.
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“It’s an opportunity for them to re-unite their country around the national anthem, but there’s still a game of rugby to be played afterwards,” the coach said. “None of us are left without some form of feeling after what happened, but the players are focused on the content of 80 minutes of rugby, which is important. We admire everything on the field, we will sing the national anthem, and then we’ll go to 80 minutes of rugby. That’s what the players are focusing on.
“Greig and the other players have been talking about that this week and that is what the players are focusing on. It’s a test of your concentration in an atmosphere that could become very loud and hostile, buoyant for the French team, and we want to take that away from them. We will have to be accurate, play to the rules and to the referee and try not to get penalised.”
As well as expecting France to try to seize an early initiative, Cotter is convinced the home team’s strategy is to introduce extra physicality later in the game. It will be up to Scotland’s biggest substitutes to play their part in blunting that threat, while the experience many of the squad have of playing in France should also be useful.
“They’ve obviously gone for power on the bench,” Cotter said. “The lock is a big, powerful ball-offloading carrier; the tight-head prop is an explosive ball carrier too. Loann Goujon is a player I had in the Clermont academy: I know a little bit about him. He’s not had a Test match, but they felt reasonably comfortable about giving him a run against us.
“[Alasdair] Strokosch is still playing in France and Jim Hamilton has played there as well. They understand the language, they can pick up on things, anticipate things, they know how the French go about things. . Johnnie Beattie, too, knows the players personally.”
While there is no place in the squad for uncapped opensides Hamish Watson and Hugh Blake, Cotter had no hesitation in selecting Hidalgo-Clyne on the bench – and not only because Chris Cusiter and Henry Pyrgos are injured. “Henry is injured but Sam has played well. If the game needs to change near the end, or if we get an injury, he can play several positions. He’s played wing, he’s played full-back, he’s a goal kicker, he gives us a little bit flexibility as well. The energy he’s been bringing to Edinburgh recently would assist us.”
• Scotland team to play France at the Stade de France, Paris, in the RBS 6 Nations Championship (kick-off 6pm local, 5pm GMT) – live on BBC1
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); 27 caps, 8 tries, 1 penalty, 43 points
14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors); 13 caps, 6 tries, 30 points
13 Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors); 2 caps
12 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors); 11 caps, 4 tries, 20 points
11 Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby); 15 caps, 7 tries, 35 points
10 Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors); 5 caps
9 Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN (Gloucester); 34 caps, 3 tries, 37 conversions, 70 penalties, 299 points
1 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby); 39 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby); 80 caps; 2 tries, 10 points
3 Euan Murray (Glasgow Warriors); 62 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
4 Richie Gray (Castres); 42 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); 8 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors), 10 caps, 1 try, 5 points
7 Blair Cowan (London Irish); 6 caps, 1 try, 5 points
8 Johnnie Beattie (Castres); 34 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
16 Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors); 3 caps
17 Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors); 6 caps
18 Geoff Cross (London Irish); 35 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
19 Jim Hamilton (Saracens); 57 caps, 1 try, 5 points
20 Alasdair Strokosch (USA Perpignan); 42 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby); uncapped
22 Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors); 5 caps
23 Dougie Fife (Edinburgh Rugby); 3 caps
Not considered through injury: Adam Ashe (neck), Chris Cusiter (knee), Chris Fusaro (ankle), Grant Gilchrist (arm), Tyrone Holmes (face), Ruaridh Jackson (knee), Sean Lamont (calf), Henry Pyrgos (knee), Matt Scott (shoulder), Tim Swinson (calf), Duncan Taylor (hamstring), Duncan Weir (arm).