Allan Massie: Optimism even in the face of history
Here we are again, condemned to the annual February surge of optimism. History, we assure ourselves, has no significance. Just as the longest river at last reaches the sea, so too even the longest losing run must end some day. Rafa Nadal had defeated Tomas Berdych 17 times in succession before Berdych beat him in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open last month.
Our record since the Five Nations became six has been lamentable. We may actually be happy Italy were admitted to the tournament. Otherwise we might have the world record collection of wooden spoons. Of course there have been good days. We have, after all, won 19 of the 75 Six Nations games we have played. There have been a couple of draws, too, and several of the defeats have been mighty close. Nevertheless, it has been a dismal period in our rugby history even though, in the early years of the century, we still had some of the 1999 Five Nations championship winning side and, subsequently, had a fair number of players of the highest quality. Chris Paterson, Mike Blair, Simon Taylor and Jason White, for instance.
Vern Cotter has chosen a side with a nice balance of youth and experience. Five of the team have ten caps or fewer, and Alex Dunbar has only a dozen. Given the number of international matches played now, this puts them in the infants’ class. Paris is a daunting place to go, but at least these youngsters are not scarred by bitter experience of repeated defeats. Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Jonny Gray were at primary school when we last won at the Stade de France, but they have all been going great guns for Glasgow. There is more youth on the bench, too, in reserve hooker Fraser Brown, who had a terrific match – at flanker – against Bath in the Champions Cup and scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne whose energy and cockiness have had a good deal to do with Edinburgh’s recently improved form. Cotter evidently takes the New Zealand view – you look at what a player does on the field, not his date of birth.
As Scotland’s coach, he is still at the honeymoon stage. Philippe Saint-André’s position is very different. The prospect of divorce looms. France have won only 13 of the 32 internationals played since he took over. Even if you consider that a number have been against the All Blacks, that’s a wretched tally given France’s history and resources. Some of his selections have been strange, some of his omissions even more so. South African-born Rory Kockett is a pretty good scrum-half, but better than Morgan Parra? Surely not. I would rank Parra with Ireland’s Conor Murray as the best scrum-halves in the northern hemisphere, especially in terms of game-management. But Parra is a young man of strong opinions, and it would be no surprise if he and Saint-André see a few things rather differently.
This may be a high-scoring match, for the four wingers – Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser, Yoan Huget and Teddy Thomas – are all prolific try-scorers.
Camille Lopez is being touted as the best stand-off France have had for years, capable of controlling a match if allowed to settle into a rhythm. I suspect that Rob Harley may have the task of disrupting his game. That after all is his special talent, organising a bit of chaos. Finn Russell has looked agreeably unflappable, but this is his first Six Nations match, and it would be a surprise if the French don’t have a go at him. Fortunately, talented though the French back-row is, with captain Thierry Dusautoir a genuinely great player, none of them is quite as destructive as Serge Betsen used to be. There was one match at the Stade de France when he made even Jonny Wilkinson look wretched.
France have two dangerous runners in the centre. Wesley Fofana can cut any defence open and Matthieu Bastareaud gives the impression that he trains by barging through brick walls. Neither is a good distributor but Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett are going to have to do an awful lot of tackling. Yet they will ask questions themselves, Dunbar by his power and the intelligent lines he runs, Bennett by his twinkle-toed ability to confuse tacklers.
There’s no point talking about the set scrum. How it goes depends principally on the whims of the referee. Last year, for reasons nobody understood, our lineout was poor, even a liability. With the laws as they are now, you should be secure on your own ball, especially since referees have become very quick to penalise even the slightest interference with the jumper. Then, in the autumn Tests, it was well-nigh perfect. It had better be that in Paris, because Lopez loves kicking diagonals into touch in the opposing 22.
One worry is that a number of our starting XV have been injured and out of action for some time. Stuart Hogg, Rob Harley and Euan Murray haven’t played since December and Bennett has had a game and a half since his injury against New Zealand in November. It’s not easy to come back straight into an international match. On the bright side, at least say they’re not stale.
It’s often said that the first match of the Six Nations is vital, because victory gives you momentum and defeat puts you on the back foot. This is only partly true. Away victories are always difficult – in the tournament visiting sides generally win one match in three. This is one of the years when we have three games at Murrayfield. So starting with a defeat in Paris wouldn’t be fatal – provided, that is, the performance is good and the margin of defeat narrow. On the other hand, victory, by any means or score, is surely imperative for France, given that they have to go to both Twickenham and Dublin. So the pressure is greater on France than on Scotland, and the result may depend on how they respond to it.