JIM Hamilton has enjoyed his time on the other side of the Channel and has a greater insight into what makes the French rugby mind tick, but he still does not get it.
He accepts that there is less expectancy of winning games away from home, largely because winning games at home is what “every French player lives for”, but then he reveals that his Montpellier team-mates tell him that it is different when it comes to the RBS Six Nations Championship, because they love Murrayfield and Scotland, and can even sing ‘O Flower of Scotland’, the tune at least if not the words. Something of the ‘Auld Alliance’ remains strong in the French psyche.
But when it comes to rugby, he could almost be French. At 6ft 8in and nearly 20 stones in weight, he is a big lump, and he has an almost innate attraction to the, how shall we put it, ‘dark side’ of the game. So, who better to ask than Hamilton about how French teams squeeze and upset others in the scrum, lineout and maul, the launchpads set to determine the outcome tonight?
“There is a lot that goes on in those areas that people don’t see and it’s where the French, and Italians do try to beat you, by bullying you really,” he said.
“These are parts of the game that, from an outside perspective, a lot of people don’t see because it’s not really covered on TV, and not really spoken about. But we know that and we definitely have to combat that because if we don’t get that side of the game right, we’re in for a long day. If we do get it right, we’re well in with a chance and this game is winnable.
“A lot of it is small things like getting arms in there, getting in the space early to stop the mauls, but it’s generally the people you don’t see in the maul who are doing the work. If you don’t see someone when it’s mauling, and there is stuff like that going on, they’re the people doing the job right. For me, growing up through the Leicester system for ten years, if you couldn’t scrummage or maul, you would never make it. Obviously, the game has changed significantly since then, but it’s still part of getting on top and it’s the same for the French.
“Technically, they are not very good, but sometimes mauling and scrummaging isn’t technical; it’s about experience and know-how. It is something you can get better at. It is coachable. Mainly, though, it is about having the will and desire, an old-school mentality to get the job done.
“Big Richie [Gray] is slowly picking it up. I don’t know if he enjoys it … Richie has huge aspects of his game that are world class. He would tell you that mauling and that kind of thing are probably near the bottom, but he’s working on it and is well aware of what it takes to beat France in that area. He plays in France now, so he is getting better at that area of the game.”
Scott Johnson is hopeful that Gray’s time on the bench and out of the squad will have hardened him up, and Hamilton needs a strong ally. The 32-year-old has earned a reputation for ill-discipline with a handful of yellow cards and a red at inopportune moments in his career, as he seeks to lead the Scottish fight. Most often he gets it right, and as he said often no-one will know because he is out of sight, but there are occasional slips.
Still he gets picked. Why? Because ever since Frank Hadden first called him up in 2006, on hearing of his Scottish soldier father, he has brought a steel to the Scottish pack that others lack and which puts bullying opponents on their backside or on alert watching for him coming.
Hamilton agreed that it was often a fine balance on the limits of the law, but then Budge Pountney, John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder and David Leslie would tell you that their games were predicated on a similar, aggressive tightrope walk.
In the modern game mistakes are generally more costly, and yet France have received the most yellow cards (one, and a red) and conceded the most turnovers in the tournament and are still in the hunt for the title. France also top the tally for most off-loads, most defenders beaten and most tries (six, shared with Ireland), while Scotland have given up more penalties than any side in this championship and the lineout has shipped more ball than anyone.
But after the nightmare showing against Ireland and England Hamilton and forwards coach Jon Humphreys have stripped it back to basics. He and Gray have a big job to dominate that area as they did against Italy, disrupting ball to the French while ensuring a good stream of possession to the home side. And they have to keep at it as this French team will take a lot of subduing, over the 80 minutes, before a game can be won.
Hamilton spoke respectfully of the 1984 Grand Slam players who appeared at yesterday’s captain’s run, and insisted the current team could learn from their winning mentality. He is certainly eager to. “We believe that we can win this game, but we have to prove it,” he added. “If you unsettle France then you are halfway there. We will need to do a lot more than that, but sometimes they don’t look great under pressure. They want to come here and bully us in the scrum, lineout and maul, but that’s something that we’re well aware of and we’re ready for. There are going to be times when we need to fight fire with fire, and we must come out on top.”