JOHNNIE Beattie has been handed a ringing endorsement ahead of his possible return to the RBS Six Nations arena by the France captain Pascal Pape, who warned the other sides against under- estimating the Scots.
The Stade Francais forward, capped 45 times, was handed the skipper’s role for France’s autumn Test series after Thierry Dusautoir was given time off to fully recover from injuries. The French won all three games against Australia, Argentina and Samoa and so head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has stuck with him despite the return of Dusautoir, the 2011 World Player of the Year.
He will, therefore, be a central figure in the French armoury this season as they seek to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish and a meagre two wins. He stated that he expects France to be better, but also to see every team win at least one match in the forthcoming championship with Scotland his pick as the team most likely to surprise.
“We know more and more about Scotland because more players are coming to France to play, and when they are good players you learn about the quality Scotland have,” said Pape.
“We know Johnnie Beattie very well now because he plays with Montpellier and he is one of the best back rows in the championship this season. He has gone through a very good season with Montpellier, and has been very impressive in the way that he has fitted in to that team, and they are obviously doing very well in France and in the Heineken Cup.
“So, I am not surprised to see him back in the Scotland squad, and maybe am a bit surprised that he has not been involved with the international team for the past two years. He is a very skilful player, a powerful player, a very rounded player in my opinion, and he is in form right now.”
It is easy, perhaps expected of a rival captain to talk up players in opposition in what is often termed ‘the phoney war’ period before the Six Nations tournament begins. Pape was also very complimentary about the Scottish team, and that also may not be what Scotland head coach Scott Johnson wants to hear as be prepares his side to head to Twickenham as the underdog, striving to take advantage of any side that underestimates his charges. But the big Stade Francais lock forward has faced Scotland four times, and while he has never lost he insists that they have become more of a threat in recent years.
“I do think that Scotland could be the surprise team in this year’s championship,” he said. “I know players have said that before, and they have not won games, but they are definitely not a poor team.
“Now, with new coaches, new players in, and other more experienced players like Beattie coming back, and I think everybody will have to be very careful with Scotland. I think all the teams in the championship, including Italy, will be tougher this year and I believe it will be difficult to predict a winner until the very last weekend.
“Scotland are our last opponents in Paris and they have won big games in Paris before, so we will not be treating them lightly. I just hope that we are both looking at the possibility of a Grand Slam by that day, and then we will have a great occasion.”
The French may have a different look to their side by the time that Test match approaches, with youngster scrum-half Maxime Machenaud of Racing Metro and Castres full-back Brice Dulin alongside Toulon’s 30-year-old lock Jocelino Suta among the new faces for the Six Nations. Pape is hopeful that the younger players, in particular, can spark a new era for France.
“I hope that this new generation will do well,” said Pape. “They have a lot of spirit and ambition and I’m happy to guide them in the right direction, but there’s not a lot of difference between the younger players and older guys – we all play our role and I’m not worried about them.”
Two familiar faces returning to the French squad are Frédéric Michalak and Mathieu Bastareaud, and Saint-André confirmed that the versatile Michalak will be sporting the No 10 jersey when he starts for France.
“Frédéric brings a lot of flair but also experience,” the coach said. “He is still a young man  and it helped him to have a good pre-season in South Africa, which is something we do not have in France due to 11 months of competition.
“He is playing scrum-half for Toulon but I will pick him at fly-half for France. In the Top 14 you have Jonny Wilkinson, Luke McAlister, Brock James and so on, so you need to find a fly-half.
“Fly-halves are like good French wine – the older you are the better you are. He has slowly matured and just become a dad, and now his rugby is completely different.”