Three weeks ago, England would have been favourites to secure their first Grand Slam since 2003. They seemed to be flying high and looked the best team in the tournament, while Wales were struggling. Now the balance has shifted. England, to my mind, have got a bit worse every game, and Wales a bit better. England have scored only one try in their last three matches – and that was one which should have been disallowed – while the Welsh haven’t conceded a try since early in the second half of their first match. I think Wales will win and do so by a big enough margin to be champions again.
Meanwhile, we go to Paris, and let us hope it is Paris in the spring – even though the game is being played villainously late for the benefit of television rather than on a sunny afternoon such as we enjoyed the last time we won there in 1999.
Somehow – perhaps because this is a game with no bearing on the championship table, except for the French desire to avoid the Wooden Spoon – one feels quite light-hearted. A Scotland side won’t have many better opportunities simply to express themselves. People have been recalling that magical half-hour in 1999 when we ran in five tries and, although our midfield trio of Duncan Weir, Matt Scott and Sean Lamont hardly compares to the 1999 one of Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait, we do have a back three capable of scoring spectacular tries – if they get the chance.
The French XV have been a subdued bunch this season, inexplicably subdued indeed, to the dismay of their vociferous supporters. This is their last chance to cheer them up, and the best way of doing so would be to set out to play with the old “French flair”. Almost the only evidence of that has been Wesley Fofana’s beautiful try at Twickenham. Otherwise, it’s been batter, batter, batter, with that light-footed, dancing, try-scoring wing, Vincent Clerc, reduced to the status of a spectator. For those of us who love French rugby, and regard the French as the last of the game’s Romantics, it’s been pitiful to watch. Perhaps our view is out-of-date. A lot of the Top 14 is batter, bang, batter, with the ball booted in the air in order to play the dratted percentages.
No doubt most of us will be happy if we grind out a win, to finish with three victories, our best result since 2006. But there is reason to think that this team is capable of more than that, and, indeed, they proved they were against Italy. Nobody now should say it was “only Italy”. In the second half at Twickenham last week, the Italians played the most adventurous and best attacking rugby that anyone has played against England and were, in the end, decidedly unlucky to lose.
As for our selection, it’s bold of Scott Johnson to have picked young Grant Gilchrist rather than Al Kellock – and a bit rough, some may say, on the ever-willing and skilful Glasgow captain. Still, exit one injured young giant, Richie Gray, enter an eager young giant in Gilchrist. It’s a great opportunity for him, and a test of temperament, for there are easier places to kick off an international career than the Stade de France. Talking of which, let us hope the groundstaff there have managed to do something to the turf since France played Wales. It cut up at every scrum that day, and we had enough spoiled scrums last weekend to last us a lifetime.
The other change brings in Alasdair Strokosch, which is a bit rough –again – on young Rob Harley. Yet it’s logical because Harley got his chance on account of Strokosch’s injury. He will be disappointed, but he has played well and will have many more opportunities to wear the Scotland jersey. He should reflect, hard though the thought is, that he hasn’t so much been dropped as given way to the man who was the coach’s first choice for the blindside flanker position.
Even in the years when we always lost in Paris, there were some tremendously exciting and fluent matches. Let us hope for another today, with both teams taking their cue from the orders of the French Revolutionary leader, Danton, who called for “De l‘audace, de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace.”
Perhaps Scott Johnson should take the players to have a look at the magnificent statue of Danton in the Boulevard de St-Germains to get them in the right mood.