SCOTLAND rugby coach Andy Robinson has made four changes to the side that lost in Wales and opted for a new midfield partnership against France as he seeks a first win in five Tests.
Robinson’s record in the RBS Six Nations Championship stands at just two wins in 12 games and failures by players to finish off the improving attacking work in the side has left him hugely frustrated.
He has dropped Glasgow scrum-half Chris Cusiter and Nick De Luca, the Edinburgh centre, and replaced them with Mike Blair and Sean Lamont respectively, largely due to below-par displays in the opening games. Lamont moves from inside to outside centre, where he played often last season for the Scarlets, which opened the door for the return of Glasgow’s Graeme Morrison to the No 12 jersey for the first time since the World Cup.
Teenager Stuart Hogg, who made an impressive Test debut off the bench in Cardiff, is handed the starting full-back role against the French 40 years after Jim Renwick, also 19, made his Scotland debut in the centre against the same opposition.
With Max Evans out injured Rory Lamont switches from full-back to wing. The only other change to the side is in the pack where John Barclay starts at blindside flanker after replacing Alasdair Strokosch, who suffered a broken hand against Wales. That brings a new mix to the Scotland back row with two recognised openside flankers either side of No 8 David Denton.
Robinson explained: “I have looked at the team and what is going to be best for beating France. I am delighted for Stuart Hogg. He came into the squad for the St Andrews camp and did really well, played in the [Scotland A versus] Saxons game and was exemplary in his performance and then came off the bench in Cardiff and what you saw was a real composed performance.
“He has that ability to handle the pressure of international rugby and it’s great that he’s getting his first start. We’re disappointed with the injuries we got, to Max and Alasdair Strokosch, but we have good players to come in.”
Robinson’s frustration with the opening defeats has been etched on his face but he retains belief that his squad are close to cracking the winning code. He acknowledges that France will be a tougher prospect than England and Wales, arriving in Scotland intent on regaining the title they have won five times in the past decade, the last in 2010. Robinson said: “This is a different challenge. The other two [England and Wales] have the potential to move the ball against you and the French are the best at doing that, but the one area that you get severely tested by the French is the scrum and lineout, and that’s a key battle-ground on Sunday.
“They destroyed us in the scrum last year. They completely dominated us because we scrummaged as individuals. We have to scrummage collectively as an eight-man operation, while the lineout is an area France will go to if they’re not able to get their game going to secure possession, so we’ve got to be able to dominate there. France have got everything. They have the firepower to play in many different ways which is what makes them a very strong side.”
However, Robinson believes he has selected a side with the mix of experience and strength to subdue the French pack and back line, and the blend of ball-carrying ability and attacking nous in the back three, in particular, to cause France real problems.
The Scotland coach accepted that a third defeat on the trot would be difficult to stomach with away matches with Ireland and Italy to come, but insisted that this squad, with youngsters such as Lee Jones, Denton and Hogg pointing to a brighter future, was capable of lifting Scotland from their current world ranking of 12th.
He also paid tribute to the support of the Scottish fans, and the fact that Murrayfield is a 67,144 sell-out for Sunday.
“I want to thank the support that are going to be at the game,” he added. “For us to have a sell-out on a Sunday against France, for the first time since 1994, is testament to the energy that is here in Scotland and the desire for the team to be successful.
“The players and management are absolutely delighted that that’s the case. The messages of support also given to the players heading into this game drives them forward and we want to put in a performance that inspires that crowd to support the team. Unfortunately, the stats [defeats] are there and I have to be able to deal with that, but in terms of my enthusiasm, desire and how I see the team going out and playing.
“I have full confidence in how we’re playing and am looking forward to the game at the weekend.”
Scotland team to play France:
S Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); R Lamont (Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Scarlets), G Morrison (Glasgow Warriors), L Jones (Edinburgh); G Laidlaw (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (capt, Edinburgh), G Cross (Edinburgh), R Gray (Glasgow Warriors), J Hamilton (Gloucester), J Barclay (Glasgow Warriors), R Rennie (Edinburgh), D Denton (Edinburgh).
Replacements: S Lawson (Gloucester), E Kalman (Glasgow Warriors), A Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), R Vernon (Sale Sharks), C Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), D Weir (Glasgow Warriors), N De Luca (Edinburgh).