Allan Massie: Release of players for France v Scotland is vital to the integrity of the Six Nations

Had there been a crowd at Murrayfield on Sunday, both sets of supporters might have left feeling disgruntled: Scots because their team had made so many mistakes – a rotten lineout and repeated failures to field Irish kicks – Irish ones because their team took so little advantage of Scottish errors and played such a limited game that they were outscored by three tries to two.

Scotland could be deprived the services of captain Stuart Hogg in English players refuse to release players for the France match. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Nobody denies that Ireland are a very efficient side, but their unwillingness to make use of a very good three-quarter line is sad. One is tempted to say they will have to be more ambitious if they are to end their tournament by beating England in Dublin. But perhaps not. Of England one may now say what has for so long been said about France: it depends which English team turns up – the dull and witless one that lost to Scotland and Wales or the one that played so brilliantly against France last weekend.

Johnny Sexton will punish England if their discipline is as poor as it has been at times this year. He kicked five penalty goals against Scotland. People complain about reset scrums. I complain about the time permitted to goal-kickers. Sexton’s five penalties took at least seven minutes out of the match. The 15-a-side game should follow the example of sevens and have all attempts at goal made by drop-kicks.

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Scotland’s last two matches pose different problems. Everyone, except, one hopes, the Italians, expects them to beat Italy today and to do so handsomely, even though deprived of Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings. Failure to do so would be awful preparation for the French game, now scheduled for next Friday evening. Conversely, while victory by a handsome margin would be good for morale, it would otherwise be irrelevant to the match in Paris.

There are still uncertainties about that game. We don’t, it seems, yet know whether English and French clubs will release players to Scotland, the postponed match being outside the international “window”. It seems likely that they will. It would be wretched if they don’t. Release of these players is important to Scotland, and it would be unjust if we were deprived of players, especially since we were not responsible for the postponement of the game. Depending, however, on the outcome of this evening’s France-Wales game, it may be even more important for the integrity of the tournament. If France secure a bonus point win against Wales, while also denying the Welsh a losing bonus point, France might still need a five tournament- point victory over Scotland to secure the title. Otherwise it might come down to the unsatisfactory “points differential”. Of course Wales may win in Paris if the Roman goddess Fortuna continues to favour them as she did against Ireland, Scotland and England, or they may get a losing bonus point while preventing France from scoring a fourth try; that would leave Wales as champions and the result of next Friday’s match would matter only to France and Scotland.

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Today’s game is obviously important too, and not only because a handsome bonus-point win might lift us above either Ireland or England in the table, depending on the result in Dublin. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Italy may have suffered four heavy defeats, but they have had good passages in every match and have scored some good tries. For them as for us, today offers a chance to get something good out of a disappointing season.

We may start by saying the lineout can’t possibly be as bad again, and certainly Italy’s lineout is neither as skilful nor as well-drilled as Ireland’s. However we have two locks and a hooker who are all short of international experience or, in Grant Gilchrist’s case, recent international experience. So there must be some lingering doubts.

Darcy Graham: “The nimblest feet to have come out of Hawick since Jim Renwick.” Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

It was always likely that Huw Jones would play in this match because he is our best attacking centre. The manner in which he scored against Ireland was impressive: it has cost Leinster’s James Lowe his place in the Irish team, Andy Farrell not being a man to be impressed by the New Zealander’s “after you, Claud” feeble attempt to tackle Jones.

Gregor Townsend’s decision to move captain Stuart Hogg to 10 in the unfortunate absence of Finn Russell rather than bringing in Jaco van der Walt, a regular fly-half, is evidence of a commitment to attack. It still leaves us with an exciting back three of Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe. The last-named hasn’t yet set the heather on fire in his first international season, and both Wales and Ireland have exposed some of his weaknesses in defence, but it will be a surprise and disappointment if he doesn’t take advantage of an Italian defence which has had as many holes as a colander. Nobody doubts van der Merwe’s pace, power and eye for the try-line, while the young Darcy Graham has the nimblest feet to have come out of Hawick since Jim Renwick was dancing his way through defences. It’s difficult to imagine this three-quarter line not scoring tries.

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