THERE was a time when French rugby was full of philosophers. When every loss would be followed by earnest disquisitions from players and coaches alike on life, the offside law and the futility of existence.
Not any more, according to Scotland flanker Alasdair Strokosch, who plays his club rugby for Perpignan. After three defeats and a draw in this year’s RBS Six Nations, the French national team are in no mood for navel-gazing, soul-searching or any other form of introspection. They just want a win; preferably a crushing one.
“I don’t know about soul-searching – I think they’ll just be going off their heads,” Strokosch said yesterday after being restored to the Scotland line-up for Saturday’s match in Paris. “They’ve pushed themselves into a corner.
“They definitely don’t want to lose to us at home, so they’re going to come out pretty fiery. They’re a proud rugby team and nation, and they’ll feel they’re in a position they shouldn’t be in.
“They’ve always had respect for us, but then they always expect they should beat us as well. Given recent results it’s not entirely surprising that they think like that. That’s one of the reasons they definitely won’t want to lose to us.”
However, that expectation could work in two ways. If they get off to a good start, France will become supremely confident once more, in which case they could conceivably blow Scotland away. But, if they are tentative, and if their fickle supporters begin to get on their backs, self-doubt could quickly return.
“A French crowd can get on your back if it’s not going your way,” Strokosch continued. “And that’s an objective for us. I think they’re a bit bemused by [the results so far], to be fair. Some of the things I’ve read, from what I can understand, they’ve questioned the coach, mainly. They’ve always got faith in the players, because they’ve proved time and again how good they are.”
If France do get up a head of steam, it is likely to come from their gaining the upper hand in the scrum. If their backs get quality ball from the pack, they are likely to put the Scots defence under severe pressure. But when they are on the back foot, they have a tendency to panic. “We’ve got to set out to make it uncomfortable for them, and scrummaging is a big part of that. That’s a really good indicator of how a French pack is performing, so if we can take that away from them it will be a good start.”
Having said that, the 30-year-old from Paisley added that the breakdown was arguably even more important. “It’s a crucial part of the game. People talk about scrums or lineouts, but there are 200 or whatever breakdowns in a game. That’s probably the most important thing you can work on.”
After being injured in Scotland’s first match of the year, the defeat at Twickenham, Strokosch was not involved in the three home games which followed. “It’s good to come back and get another chance,” he said. “There are a few years I’ve either been injured or something has happened that has made me miss most of the tournament, so it’s good to get another chance to come back and prove myself.”
As he watched on from the sidelines and Scotland beat Italy and Ireland before losing to Wales last week, Strokosch believes he has seen a distinct improvement in the team. But much of that, he thinks, has come in defence, with the win over Ireland being particularly impressive in that respect. What is required on Saturday, if they are to make the French go even more “off their heads”, is a more assertive display.
“We’ve taken a lot more chances. Whenever we’ve had the chance, we’ve got the points. Like against Ireland, we didn’t have many chances, but we got a lot of points off them. So that’s been good. We’ve had to defend very well, and make a lot of tackles. But what we need to do is get the ball and attack. That would make things a little bit easier.”