This feels like another game against one of the Six Nations’ “big four” which we can justifiably approach with expectation rather than our habitual hope.
There is no doubt that we are finally catching up with the better teams in the tournament, and there is not one name on the teamsheet for tomorrow’s match which you read with a wince or a raised eyebrow. To use a Woodwardism, these are all proper players. And, with the like of WP Nel and Jonny Gray, we have a few of those indisputably “inked-in” guys which any Test team needs at its core.
Our lack of numbers has always simplified things for the selectors. We are just fortunate that our shallow little pool is unusually well-stocked at the moment.
France, on the other hand, have hundreds and hundreds of professionals to choose from but, other than the injured Louis Picamoles and, after his recent performances, Guilhem Guirado, there is hardly a player in the French set-up who unites good opinion amongst their supporters. No nation’s selection policy has provoked more debate and confusion over the last decade, but maybe the various coaches’ problem has been that they have been selecting from a murky mass of players who are much of a muchness.
Along with our own improvement, that is why our traditional optimism has strong(ish) foundations this year. With Picamoles out and Thierry Dusatoir retired, there isn’t one proven world class, big game player in this selection. In the not too distant past, you could have pointed to half a dozen; Jauzion, Clerc, Mas, Harinordoquy, Parra, Dusatoir himself.
If you look round the Six Nations as a whole, it is this relative lack of talismanic figures which makes the next year or so a great opportunity for Scotland to regain a foothold in the top half of the table. Wales do still have their fair share of genuine Test match animals, but Ireland’s top guys are either injured or ageing, while England’s youngsters are still unproven when it comes to the biggest moments.
Essentially, there is a bit of a legend vacuum in the current Six Nations, and there are those within this Scottish group who have as much right as anyone to fill it over the next few seasons.
Going back to France, neutrals have at least been encouraged that Guy Noves seems to be trying to bring back a bit of soul to the team. So far he has been unafraid to show a Toulouse bias, picking the type of players, for example Maxime Medard, Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou, that casual observers love to see in blue. Though perhaps more due to their ineffable Frenchness rather than any concrete record of effectiveness at Test level. He has also got his team off-loading in true French style, more often than the rest of the teams in the tournament put together in fact, but so far to no great purpose (and I really hope I’m not speaking too soon here).
The problem is, without Picamoles or even Mathieu Bastareaud, France lack a man who can get through the first tackle. And an offload at or before the gainline rarely troubles a defence. In that sense, the Six Nations sometimes isn’t too far removed from your average under-12s game: just give it to the big guy and watch him go, whether it’s Billy Vunipola, Jamie Roberts or Sean O’Brien (you only have to look at how Ireland struggle without him).
Teams can, as Australia showed in the autumn, overcome the lack of a monster ball carrier with a bit of guile, but France haven’t yet shown too much of that either. It doesn’t help when you keep chopping and changing your half-backs, and tomorrow Francois Trinh-Duc and Maxime Machenaud make up the third different pairing in four matches. However, knowing our luck this will be one of those days when Trinh-Duc, yet another in the endless line of flaky French stand-offs, finally looks like fulfilling his potential.
I remember going to watch France win their Grand Slam in 2010 with a group of French ex-internationals and the same debate as to whether he was genius or garbage was going on even as he lifted the trophy.
You have to feel for a guy who goes through a whole career struggling to prove his doubters wrong but, from a Scottish point of view, we have to hope that those in the garbage camp had it right.