France v Scotland date announced but release of players still uncertain

Gregor Townsend has made wholesale changes for Scotland’s Guinness Six Nations match against Italy on Saturday knowing that his team will have to face France six days later.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has picked Stuart Hogg at stand-off to face Italy. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The game in Paris has finally been confirmed for Friday, March 26 and will kick-off at 8pm UK time at the Stade de France.

But the national coach still doesn’t know whether English and French clubs will release their Scotland players for the game. Talks are understood to be ongoing.

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It is a highly unsatisfactory situation for Townsend as he tries to revive a campaign which started so promisingly with an away win over England but has stalled following back-to-back home defeats by Wales and Ireland, albeit by narrow margins.

He has made nine changes to the Scotland starting XV to take on Italy at BT Murrayfield, with the most eye-catching coming at half-back where, in the absence of Finn Russell who has a head knock, Stuart Hogg is at stand-off, with Scott Steele at scrum-half.

It means Sean Maitland switches to full-back, with Darcy Graham taking his place on the right wing. Huw Jones, who made a try-scoring appearance from the bench against Ireland, earns a start at outside centre ahead of Chris Harris.

In the forwards, four of the front five have been changed. Injuries to Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray see Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist form a new second row partnership. Zander Fagerson returns from suspension to replace WP Nel at tighthead prop and David Cherry is preferred at hooker to George Turner.

Cherry, like Steele, will be making his first start for Scotland.

Speaking before the date for the France game was confirmed, Townsend said he was rotating his squad in the likelihood that they would have to be play three matches in quick succession.

“We are expecting to play a Test match next week and that’s part of the reason we have managed the squad and selected certain players this week, in the knowledge that we could have a third Test match in three weeks a week tomorrow,” he said.

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The France v Scotland game was originally due to be played in Paris on February 28 but was postponed three days beforehand because of an outbreak of Covid-19 in the French camp.

The new date of March 26 falls outside the international window and clubs in the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 are under no obligation to release their players.

Early indications are that there is a willingness for players to be made available.

Townsend believes the integrity of the Six Nations Championship would be compromised if his team are forced to take on France without their contingent of English and French-based players and there is a strong sense within the Scotland camp that they must not be punished for the postponement, particularly so since it emerged that France’s adherence to coronavirus protocols was not as assiduous as it might have been.

“It’s the biggest tournament in world rugby outside the World Cup and we obviously don’t want to go into a game where we are not allowed to pick certain players,” the Scotland coach said.

Asked if he would refuse to play in the event of English clubs not releasing their Scotland players for the France match, Townsend said: “I don't think I would have that power. Ultimately, if the Six Nations agree that we have to play then we will have to play, but I’m hoping that’s not the case and then all our players are available.

“I did read a few weeks ago that the principle was there to release the players and I hope that principle becomes a reality.”

France could go into the game with a chance of winning the championship if they beat Grand Slam-chasing Wales in their penultimate match on Saturday.

Townsend’s immediate focus is on Italy and he has called on his side to put in a more physical performance on Saturday. The 27-24 defeat by Ireland last Sunday contained too many errors for the coach’s liking.

“We didn’t show enough physicality against Ireland at times and they certainly had the upper hand in the contact area,” said Townsend. “And although we defended well in terms of our stats we felt we could have had more bite in our tackles. We look to set a really high standard and we dropped off that standard at the weekend.”

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