Scotland require to pour on the pace in all areas of the pitch in order to get their RBS Six Nations Championship campaign up and running against France at Murrayfield on Sunday.
That’s the view of an exiled Scot at the heart of the French scene – Clermont Auvergne team manager Neil McIlroy, the former Jed-Forest and Borders prop forward.
McIlroy, who crossed the Channel for spells with Nice and Beziers then stayed on in administrative roles, says: “Rather than leave France fresh, the fact their previous game with Ireland was postponed could actually work in favour of Scotland.
“There was a big contrast in the pace and intensity of Scotland’s last match in Wales although they lost.
“If Scotland maintain that urgency and show a bit more creativity in the backs then it would be foolish to write off home hopes.”
McIlroy’s job brings him into daily contact with five of the current French squad and as well as knowing the respect which Scotland’s forwards are generating he has also picked up on the fact France will be keen to attack what is regarded as a solid if unspectacular back line.
“The Scots three-quarters work hard individually but as a unit France will look to take them on,” says McIlroy, who added: “The key will be how Scotland rise to that challenge against players such as Wesley Fofana, who is one of the finds of the season although, to be fair, he was making a name for himself with us at Clermont Auvergne last season.”
Fofana, 24, had a try-scoring debut in the 30-12 win over Italy and McIlroy added: “Fofana is equally good on the wing or at centre and very strong. He always seems to break the first tackle and is particularly good in the air.
“Like his club and country centre partner, Aurelien Rougerie, he is a very good chaser under the high ball and is thriving in the close company of a player he has developed a good understanding with.
“When France ran into problems at the World Cup [there was widespread disregard for the methods of previous coach Marc Lievremont] it was Rougerie who many of the players looked to with his leadership and organisational qualities.
“Despite being on the wrong side of 30 years old, Rougerie will again be crucial at Murrayfield especially with Julien Malzieu, another from Clermont, on the wing.
“People couldn’t believe it when Malzieu was not in the French teams of Lievremont and the try he scored against Italy [Rougerie also scored in that game] showed why he should never have been away.
“Malzieu has a typically French ability to spin out of a tackle then pour on the pace.
“His absence was said to be more about a personality clash with Lievremont than a rugby matter and Scotland should be wary now that him and his X-factor is back.”
Clermont also contribute forwards in prop Vincent Debaty and Julien Bonnaire. McIlroy said: “I spoke with Vincent just the other day and although he’ll be on the opposite side of the front row if he starts I know he has a healthy regard for the abilities of Allan Jacobsen with Ross Ford earning a mention in our conversations.
“But away from the scrums where he is better than given credit for in some places, Debaty is a big lad of 18st who stays on his feet well and more than holds his own at Clermont where, remember, we have other international props in Thomas Domingo and Lionel Faure.
“Among those who will support Debaty’s ball carries – and he could be used as an impact player this weekend – is Bonnaire in his last Six Nations Championship. We regard Julien as a silent assassin type who goes about his business as a flanker quietly but always gets the job done in looking to provide the quick possession all French teams relish as well as contribute at the tail of the line-out.”
That leads on to a direct comparison between two players whom McIlroy knows particularly well with Clermont’s Morgan Parra sure to come off the bench either at scrum-half or stand-off which are roles Greig Laidlaw has covered at international level.
“I helped coach Greig when he was in Scotland under-21s but my knowledge of his abilities goes much deeper as he was around at Jed-Forest as a youngster when I was playing alongside his father and uncle.
“If Scotland can get quick ball, I’d back Greig to use it wisely but in a different way to Parra who is typical of all French half- backs in that there is a nonchalance about them.
“That stems not so much from cockiness as confidence that they will always get a good service from the forwards and Scotland will have to be wary, especially as there is a new mood in the French camp with Philippe St Andre taking over the coaching.
“There is no mistaking the fact players now go to French training sessions and return from them smiling.
“What they are doing under St Andre and his assistants Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru is more like what they are used to at club level where three very experienced guys in the pro game are in charge.
“France’s structure and organisation has turned a corner,” says McIlroy in hinting that Scotland might just be more up to speed as a consequence of playing more often in this tournament.