Allan Massie: France have it in them to buck Six Nations trend, but Scotland can't be underestimated
Of the three, France at Murrayfield have the best chance. Wales were poor in Dublin, competent but no more than that in beating Scotland a fortnight ago, while for today’s match at Twickenham Eddie Jones has done something unusual: he has selected what looks like the best team available to him. England should win, even perhaps comfortably, yet recent Welsh sides have had the habit of playing better than expected.
Almost nobody gives Italy even a faint chance of winning in Dublin tomorrow. So if the supremacy of home teams is to be successfully challenged, there’s little doubt that France are favourites to do so. They were at times mighty impressive in beating Ireland at the Stade de France in the best match of the tournament to date, while Scotland were somewhat lacklustre in Cardiff. Yet, against Ireland, France were brilliant in patches rather than being wholly convincing. Shaun Edwards is rightly reckoned one of the best defence coaches in the world. Nevertheless his team conceded three tries while scoring only two themselves in their 30-24 win. France are being hailed as one of the best two or three teams in the world, and are certainly capable of playing magnificent rugby with devastating combinations of backs and forwards working in harmony, but they are still some way short of perfection.
They were favourites for the title last year too, but lost to England at Twickenham and to Scotland in Paris. Both were last-minute defeats. Recently Scotland have played better and more successfully against France and England than against Ireland and Wales. I don’t know why.
Nevertheless the odds are against us, even at Murrayfield. Four of what might be considered our strongest pack are absent injured: Rory Sutherland, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson. Normally such losses would have funeral bells ringing. Yet now the replacements are all impressive, even though there must be some anxiety that the pairing at lock of Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist is somewhat lacking in physical presence when measured against their French opposite numbers.
We were certainly disappointing in Cardiff. Yet, as I remarked last week, losing by only three points there would usually have been regarded as a pretty good performance. Few can doubt that we shall have to be much better today, but it’s hard to see any reason why we shouldn’t be.
While people are surely pleased to see young Rory Darge making his first start, there have been muttering that this means we have two No 7s and no one accustomed to the more hard-grafting role of No 6. I’ve never been quite convinced that the roles of openside and blindside flanker are really so very different. In any case, though too much shouldn’t be expected of Darge, he has shown himself one of the fastest and most effective ball carriers in the URC this season, and we do need players capable of driving through the first line of the French defence and setting up quick ball to give the backs that precious space and time to play
Our back play hasn’t yet sparkled, partly doubtless because the English and Welsh matches were both played in wet and windy conditions. In Cardiff this suited Wales and so Dan Biggar was able to outshine Finn Russell who had replaced him in the third Lions Test. The French of course know Russell very well and are properly wary. No doubt he will be closely marked – which may offer opportunities to others, notably Stuart Hogg.
We conceded far too many penalties in Cardiff, and certainly can’t afford to do so again today, their full-back Melvyn Jaminet being one of the most reliable goal-kickers in the Six Nations. Scrum penalties tend to be a bit of a lottery, but penalties conceded at the breakdown are almost always the result of a moment’s poor judgement. A tackled player penalised for holding on to the ball would almost always be wiser to let the opposition have it.
As always, France have backs with a keen eye for the try-line. If scrum-half and captain Antoine Dupont is the best in his position in the world, there are few, if any, more alert and dashing try-scorers than Damian Penaud on the right wing. Still, Scotland haven’t often fielded two wings with a keener eye for the try-line than Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe.
It could and should be quite a match, one to rival the France-Ireland game a fortnight ago.