THE focus switched briefly last weekend to club rugby for those of us who play outside Scotland, but it did not take long to switch it back to both the latest, jarring memories from the Millennium Stadium and the ideas we have for putting it right against France on Sunday.
One of the things that still gets me about playing for Scotland is the size and tremendous excitement of our support, which definitely brings a real edge to Scottish players. The Millennium was an unbelievable place to play, and the support we had there was brilliant and seeing fans at the hotel, on the way to the game, hearing them in the stadium and speaking to them at night was quite overwhelming.
It is probably easy to under-estimate the effects of that on players, particularly if you have grown up in Scotland and have come to Murrayfield a lot. But when you have grown up in England, as I did, looking north and wanting to be part of it, it doesn’t matter that I am now preparing for my 37th cap, I still have this incredible sense of honour I had when I made my debut, a real spine-tingling excitement about going out there on Sunday in front of a packed Murrayfield to try and win for our country. That probably sounds clichéd, but I tell you as a player you feel it and I can not think of anything better right now in life.
You probably feel it more when you’re not winning and there has been a lot spoken in the camp about owing our fans, but there is only one thing we all want, and that is a victory. Nothing else does it.
The RBS Six Nations Championship is unique, with all the fanfare and hype before the matches, the excitement around the game and afterwards, and the social side which is a huge part of rugby and the French are a big part of that with their noisy but friendly fans.
We spoke before the Welsh game about being bullied by them here last year and, while we didn’t win down there, I do feel we didn’t let that happen this time. Mistakes cost us again. But we have to back that now up because our scrum got destroyed, to borrow a word from Andy Robinson, and that was where the game started to go from us.
One of the brightest facets of the game in Cardiff was the appearance of Stuart Hogg and the way he helped bring us back into that game in the second half. I actually believe that had his try stood we would have set up a cracking finale. I know we scored moments later, through Greig Laidlaw, but Hoggy’s try had us surfing a real momentum at that point, which was knocked a bit when the try was disallowed.
Stuart’s performance was phenomenal for a 19-year-old on his debut, and you look at the quality of Dave Denton coming through, the way Greig Laidlaw fitted in for his first start, the work of Lee Jones and we know Duncy Weir is also a talent coming through, and there is genuine optimism there. It is disappointing to lose big Stroker [Alasdair Strokosch] to injury this week because he’s a big character in the team, but so is John Barclay and I know how determined he is to regain his form. Playing two opensides in the back row could give us a real chance in this game to play the kind of quick up-tempo match that we are confident will give France real problems.
We know France will be a different animal to England and Wales. They have missed a weekend and will be desperate to follow up their win against Italy with one on the road, and I expect their pack to give us a much tougher test than we’ve had so far. We all know that, but we have a quality pack and we have the ability to rise a notch or two as well.
A lot of our guys have now beaten top French teams – I enjoyed my win with Gloucester over Thierry Dusatoir’s Toulouse in the Heineken Cup a few weeks ago, as did the Glasgow boys a few years back, and the Edinburgh guys did brilliantly against Racing Metro home and away. We have spoken about taking confidence from that, but understanding also that this is several notches up.
The Six Nations is a different thing, because everyone lifts their game and guys like Dusatoir are world-class – he is as good as Richie McCaw on his game in my opinion – but we are good too and, back at home in front of a full house of passionate Scottish supporters, it’s going to be a cracking match.
They have class there, but so do we and we are desperate to get the right blend of power, pace and composure to create the chances and finish them this week. We have good players coming through, we are growing more confident in how we are playing and the fact that we have not won yet only steels the determination to get over the line tomorrow. Murrayfield full, with that roar, is an exciting prospect. Let us hear you, particularly when it gets quiet or the French are giving us a hard time – it does get into the heads and hearts, ours and theirs, and it does make a difference.
We will do everything in our power to repay your faith tomorrow.