Allan Massie: Exciting Scotland France backs can light up Paris match

The Scotland-France match is often the best of the tournament. It may be that again today, even though the back divisions of both teams have star players missing: Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, and on the French side Wesley Fofana and Teddy Thomas, who scored two fine tries at BT Murrayfield last year.
Scotland's Blair Kinghorn celebrates his first try against Italy. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRUScotland's Blair Kinghorn celebrates his first try against Italy. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Scotland's Blair Kinghorn celebrates his first try against Italy. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

Even so both Gregor Townsend and Jacques Brunel have picked exciting back divisions. Both have audacious young full-backs – Blair Kinghorn and Thomas Ramos, and all four wings are proven international try-scorers, while it will be fun if young Darcy Graham gets a run later in the match.

Iain Morrison yesterday highlighted the intriguing clash between Mathieu Bastareaud and Nick Grigg at 13. English journalists are often very critical of Bastareaud. I don’t know why. He is after all quite similar to Manu Tuilagi about whom they write gushingly. They are both very powerful, Tuilagi a shade quicker, Bastareaud more skilful in off-loading and all but immovable if he gets over the ball at the breakdown. There’s not really much to choose between them.

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France suffered a heavy and humiliating defeat at Twickenham. I wouldn’t make too much of that. Two years ago Vern Cotter’s Scotland suffered a similar thumping there; it didn’t make them a bad side. They did after all beat both Ireland and Wales at Murrayfield that season. France this year looked very good for the first half against Wales and were 16-0 up at the interval. Wales won the second half and the match, but it wasn’t so much that France collapsed as that Wales played better, keeping hold of the ball instead of knocking it on as they had been doing in the first half. Then they got two somewhat lucky tries, the first when a speculative kick down the middle stopped just a yard or so short of the French line and Yoann Huget slipped and fumbled the wet ball, the second from an interception. Well, the only backs who have never had a pass intercepted are those who rarely pass the ball.

The scrum-half duel should be interesting. One had expected it would be between Greig Laidlaw and Morgan Parra, club-mates at Clermont-Auvergne, but Parra has been dropped. He may have been a bit short of game-time at Twickenham because Laidlaw has mostly been the first-choice starter for their club. Incidentally those Scottish fans who still complain that Laidlaw takes too long getting the ball away from the breakdown can’t have watched him play for Clermont. He is indeed playing the best rugby of his life. The young Antoine Dupont of Toulouse starts in place of Parra and he has been outstanding when I’ve watched him in the Heineken Champions Cup and Top 14.

The French pack is big and powerful, perhaps a little lacking in pace, perhaps also in fitness – or so one is told. I imagine we will want to test this theory and run them around a bit. England had a lot of success kicking deep, and I suppose we’ll do a bit of that, even though Townsend’s teams usually like to keep the ball in hand. Obviously Russell will be missed; more than any other fly-half in the northern hemisphere he has the ability to do the unexpected and make things happen. But Peter Horne is a very clever player too, and, like Russell, often seems to glide through the narrowest of gaps. Given that many of us would want to see Willem Nel, John Barclay, Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and perhaps Richie Gray starting for Scotland, it’s remarkable that one can still be optimistic and indeed satisfied with the pack Townsend has been able to select. Jamie Ritchie who probably wouldn’t have started a match if Barclay and Watson had been fit has played so well that he must now be hard to dislodge. The front five did well against Ireland, and Josh Strauss has returned from a spell in the wilderness to carry 
powerfully. It’s especially pleasing to have young 
Magnus Bradbury back; there’s something of 
Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony about him.

Jacques Brunel has taken a chance by picking the 19-year-old Romain Ntamack at fly-half, all the more so because he has played mostly in the centre this season. Still the gamble may pay off.

Sixty –two years ago, Scotland picked a 19-year old, then doing his National Service in the RAF, at full-back against France at a chilly Stade Colombes, even though he had played his schoolboy rugby at fly-half. It was a dour encounter which Scotland won 6-0 thanks to a penalty and drop goal kicked by the young debutant. His name was Ken Scotland. Two years later he would star for the Lions in New Zealand and is remembered by those of us old and lucky enough to have watched him as the outstanding Scottish back of the quarter-century after the 1939-45 war.

As for young Ntamack, we also remember that his father Emile scored the last-minute try that knocked us out of the quarter-finals of the 1995 World Cup.