THERE was a time, lasting almost 20 years, when we nearly always beat France at Murrayfield, but never won in Paris.
Those days are long gone. We have won only one of the 12 Six Nations matches against the French since we signed off the old Five Nations with that glorious 36-22 victory in the Stade de France in 1999. To make matters worse, in the last six matches against France at Murrayfield we have scored only four tries, and none since Sean Lamont grabbed a couple in 2006. This dismal record demonstrates that responsibility for our much publicised try-scoring famine can’t be loaded on Andy Robinson and Gregor Townsend; it’s something they inherited. In the same six games France have scored 15 tries.
The odds are heavily against Scotland tomorrow. Ours may be an improving team – I think it is – but France are fielding an established and successful side, accustomed to winning. A lot is still said about French inconsistency. The record suggests this charge is out of date. Admittedly France sometimes fail to fire and lose matches which they should have won – against Italy in Rome last year and Tonga in the World Cup. But the truth is that they have fewer off-days than any of their rivals in the Northern Hemisphere. They have won the Six Nations five times, with Grand Slams in 2002, 2004 and 2010. They win more often than not, just as we lose more often than not.
With a coach in Philippe Saint-André who is more experienced and less given to whimsical selection than his predecessor, Marc Lievremont, this French team is full of players who are a joy to watch. The captain, Thierry Dusautoir, was named 2011’s World Player of the Year, and is quite simply wonderful. Then he is joined in the back-row by the powerful and fast Louis Picamoles and Imanol Harinordoquy who on his day brings off what other players would scarcely dare to attempt. Saint-André has even left that Charolais bull of a hooker, William Servat, on the bench, perhaps because he is mindful that, as a result of the postponement of the Ireland match, France will have to play internationals four weeks in a row.
That fascinating scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, the master organiser, is missing because of a back injury. So in comes Morgan Parra who is so good that many would prefer him to Yachvili in the first place. Francois Trinh-Duc has his occasional flakey moments, but he is the best attacking No 10 in the Six Nations. In the centre Aurelien Rougerie, who seems to get better with the years, is paired with his Clermont club-mate Wesley Fofana, with the Clemont wing Julien Malzieu outside them. Malzieu wasn’t in favour with Lievremont, but in full flight he is even harder to stop than the giant Welsh wings. The backline is completed by two nimble-footed Toulouse players, Vincent Clerc, who scores tries at will, and Maxime Medard. Each member of the three-quarter line scored a try against Italy; and that is a rare occurrence in top-class rugby.
Run your eye over the team-sheet and you will find yourself exclaiming “Formidable!” with the strongest French accent you can muster.
Nil desperandum, nevertheless. Italy outplayed France for long periods in the opening match of the championship in Paris. Admittedly they did so in Scottish style, dominating territory, retaining possession and failing to score tries. This was partly because the French defence was very good and they scarcely missed a tackle, but partly because of the Italians’ own mistakes and inability to take the half-chances they had created.
The Scottish coaches have justifiably made the point that we are now making breaks and half-breaks as we scarcely ever were a year or two ago and it is reasonable to hope that the day will arrive when we take the next step and actually score tries.
Some are a bit depressed by the centre partnership of Graeme Morrison and Sean Lamont selected for this match. One assumes they were picked with defence very much in mind, and this would make sense. A team that finds difficulty in scoring tries needs to do all it can to prevent the opposition from crossing their line. In any case, one might ask those who fear a lack of fluency in midfield, how many tries in top-level rugby are ever scored from set-piece possession by a classical three-quarter movement which sees the wing touching down in the corner. The answer of course is: precious few. If we are to score tries we are more likely to do so after a series of phases or by a moment of quick-thinking such as that displayed by Mike Blair when he ran a tap penalty to set off the brilliant movement which culminated in Stuart Hogg’s wrongly disallowed try in Cardiff.
We surely have to play at pace and play cleverly if we are to win. But we’ll have little chance of doing so unless we cut out the mistakes, such as failing to gather a restart, which have cost us dear in both matches this season. It is also surely essential to apply the sort of sustained pressure which forces errors from the opposition. Both Medard and Malzieu are sometimes uncertain in dealing with the high ball. On the other hand if an inaccurate kick gives them space to run, both are very dangerous indeed.
Tomorrow the Scottish team is faced with a challenge every bit as stiff as that in Cardiff a fortnight ago. Let us hope the result is different.