The Scotsman, 22 May 1987
“France,” maintains Earle Kirton, the former All Black first five-eighth who played for some seasons for the Harlequins, “are definitely the best team in Europe. But, after they have been two days on tour, they are liable to want home to mother!”
In truth, even the majority of Frenchmen seem to accept that their rugby travels badly. Yet, as their record of three Test victories in South Africa, two in Australia and one in New Zealand reminds us, such things are relative. Certainly, there was nothing remotely homesick about the eagerness and elan with which they went about their work yesterday morning in the cold and teeming rain.
The Tricolors lost three out of their four Tests on their hurriedly organised 1986 tour of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand but, as Jacques Fouroux, their coach, had always foreseen, it was very valuable as conditioning for the World Cup. “Never,” opined Pierre Salviac, the French TV rugby commentator, “have a French side been so well prepared before a trip to the Antipodes.”
All of which helps to put in perspective the scale of the task confronting Scotland at Lancaster Park, here in Christchurch, tomorrow when they run out against the Grand Slam Five Nations champions in their opening match in the inaugural World Cup – a task sensibly and soberly summed up by Derrick Grant, their coach: “France are not unbeatable but it will take an absolutely supreme effort on our part.”
Seeking seclusion and privacy, Scotland trained yesterday in a prison – arranged through, murmured Grant mischievously, a Melrose connection.
They struck one as unusually subdued on their return but one suspected that it was merely the combination of foul weather having bedevilled an important practice and the growing imminence of a vital match. The advance publicity for the World Cup has been decidedly muted but suddenly there is a real tingle of expectation abroad in the land.
For all their dislike of the Mitre Multiplex ball, the French handled it beautifully in the pouring rain, thereby going quite some distance towards suggesting that they had come to terms with it. Patrice Lagisquet and Patrick Esteve slotted in as if they had never been away from the side but Philippe Berot and Eric Bonneval are two awfully useful wings to lose, even for a team with such enviable cover.
As always, the driving of the forwards, often off the prompting of Pierre Berbizier, was mightily impressive. The back five of their pack, without being as telescopically tall as some of the forwards in their B team at St Andrews, are very big men and they will be scrummaging behind a strong and solid front row.
It will be a great disappointment if Scotland do not scrummage soundly themselves but, as in Paris, they are likely to find it no easy matter to screw up the French heel. Yet if only they can do so, they will be no small way towards stifling those lethal machinations of Berbizier and his loose forwards, at least from the scrum.
Of course, as both sides know only too well, it was the French driving from their lineout supremacy which beat Scotland at Parc des Princes. It is essential that they are stopped before they break out, that the first tackles go in and knock them back. But how much easier is that said than done. Particularly from the lineout, the Tricolors have brought to a fine art the explosion off a token dent, the defence finding it devilishly difficult to get in an early enough tackle of sufficient momentum on the player making the real thrust.
The local figure, more often than not, is Eric Champ who is said to train daily “like a professional” and even to have regular medical tests at the military establishment where he is employed. “Make no mistake,” declares Salviac, “Champ is the lungs of the French XV.”
Yesterday, France also worked on their defence, using Fouroux to simulate Roy Laidlaw’s scuttling breaks and chips into the box and the assistant coach, Jean Pierre Romeu, to reproduce John Rutherford’s tactical punting.
The loss of Scott Hastings, of his physique, pace and tackling has hit Scotland so hard that Messrs Munro, Grant and McGeechan have been hard pressed to put a brave face upon it. Again, they must be uncomfortably aware of how difficult it will be for Rutherford and Doug Wyllie to play without having their recent injuries very much in mind while the injury niggles which have this week troubled Keith Robertson, Roy Laidlaw and Alan Tomes have hardly helped.
One has to admit to feeling more than a little apprehensive at the fielding of so many players who have been having injury problems but there is no doubt that Grant and McGeechan still believe the game is there to be won.
“The great French strengths,” observed McGeechan, “are their back row and their midfield. But I see their front five as a possible weakness if we can keep hurrying them about the field. As I have said before, they are a very fine team but yet a stop-start side.
“We will be asking for what I call 30-second rugby from our lads – rugby where the ball is kept in play for at least 30 seconds at a time. To a layman that would not sound much but to a gasping forward it can seem an eternity.”
Both sides would prefer a dry ball and a firm pitch and neither, it is worth noting, possess a back-row forward who is naturally good on the floor.
The Scots learned a painful lesson at Twickenham where their midfield footering in the wet was fatal. But not least because the French are past masters at exploiting the forced and unforced errors of the enemy, they intend this time to keep it simple, wet or dry.
As a corollary to that, if the backs in attack find themselves caught flat, they will abort whatever move was on and revert to what is bound to be a fundamental element in the Scottish tactical approach – namely, keeping the ball behind the French.
The French prefer referees from the Southern Hemisphere as they had in Mr Lawrence against Scotland in March. Tomorrow, though, the referee will be England’s Fred Howard.
France, especially in view of the injury problems of a country as short in certain positions as are Scotland of strength in depth, will start favourites. Nevertheless, remembering how good a game Scotland gave France in the Tricolors’ own backyard, there are plenty of pundits who are very wary of the outcome. Nor, evidently, has Albert Ferrasse, president of the French Rugby Federation, hidden his conviction that the decision which put France against Scotland in the first round of matches represented a raw deal from his British friends.
The hardest thing for the Scots may be to believe in themselves after all their troubles even though they have a remarkable record in the eighties against the thrillingly talented French. Not only have the full internationals gone strictly with home advantage but Scotland actually lead 5-3 at B level.
Which is quite a record when you bear in mind the difference in the game in the two countries. At the dinner to the teams on Sunday evening, one gathers that those officials spouting on amateurism might well have been as gratified as any other after-dinner orator – by how amusing the French found their speeches – but they might not have been so pleased if they had found out why.