Scotland have already exceeded expectation but after years in the doldrums Les Bleus have performed pretty well recently with little reward for their more adventurous approach; hammering Samoa but falling short against New Zealand, the Wallabies and England. French coach Guy Noves needs a win today to validate everything he stands for.
Noves himself has been under the microscope ever since Bernard Laporte won election as president of the FFR and has threatened to show the veteran la porte ever since.
The coach is trying to change a one-trick pony into a proper circus but he needs time to perform his alchemy and sometimes the best tonic is simply a victory. With just four wins to his credit in 11 outings (his win ratio is below Philippe Saint-Andre’s miserable 44 per cent), Noves already has his feet to the fire. Does he batten down the hatches in an effort to grind out a win or does the veteran stick to his more expansive up-tempo principles and try and beat Scotland with the same game plan that fell just short at Twickenham?
He’d be wise to stick to his guns, although one or two nuts and bolts may require tightening. If Scotland proved anything last weekend it was that they will tackle big men running straight at them. Ireland looked at their most dangerous moving the ball quickly, which is when gaps appeared in Scotland’s defensive dike.
We all imagined that the size of players was falling in a new up-tempo era of running rugby but no one told the French, who have picked an enormous pack – even La Rochelle’s excellent openside flanker Kevin Gourdan is listed at 6ft 2in. The likes of Uini Ationio and Sebastien Vahaamahina, two behemoths whose combined mass registers its own gravitational pull, will be tasked with softening up the Scottish fringe defence so more athletic types can take advantage of any gaps that appear.
Vern Cotter acknowledged the “big juggernaut” that is designed to roll the Scots over but size isn’t everything or the All Blacks would never win a match.
Scotland can win this one by adopting the old rope-a-dope, soaking up the pressure before catching France on the counter but only if they can win the gainline battle. Let the French in behind and they “grow an arm and a leg” as Cotter put it. The Scots can also play better than they did last weekend.
While they deserved to win, it was a match that could so easily have run away from them in that second half had one or two Irish passes gone to hand. In the midfield Huw Jones missed an important tackle on Rob Kearney and Alex Dunbar missed just about everyone else in a green shirt. The Irish full-back tackled Stuart Hogg, man and ball, to prevent another try and Scotland gifted Ireland two golden scoring chances with an interception in each half, the first from Dunbar, the second a kick from Finn Russell that ricocheted into Conor Murray’s mitts. Two first-half restarts were gifted straight back to the Irish.
The men in blue can perform better, which is good news because they will have to, especially at the coal face.
The scrum woes are well documented but a second look at the video evidence, especially from the wired camera that hangs above the action, clearly show Tadhg Furlong driving in at an angle to separate the loosehead Allan Dell from his hooker...tighthead Nirvana.
As Cotter said last week: “There was definitely pressure coming into our hooker from an angle.” Dell was on the back foot but he was put there illegally and hopefully today’s referee Jaco Peyper will be forearmed against making any hasty decisions. If Noves has stuck to what he knows best, picking a giant pack to batter the Scots into submission, Cotter has been admirably consistent by sticking with his ball playing athletes in the front and back rows. Dell and Fraser Brown are smaller than the men who could replace them so they will try and take the scrum low to counter the sheer bulk of the 6ft 5in tighthead Uini Atonio. Brown leads Scotland’s defensive effort around the breakdown, catching the opposition well behind the gain line with his speed.
With John Barclay starting for the injured Ryan Wilson, Scotland now have two opensides both of whom are strong over the ball in a game where turnovers may be the most potent possession that the Scottish backs get. “They are very powerful going forward,” said Cotter on today’s opposition, “we’d like to see how they look going backwards.”
And there is Scotland’s problem…how to get France on to the back foot? Scotland’s ball carriers, Josh Strauss in the forwards, Dunbar behind the scrum, need a big game because while the speedy Scots would prefer to go around the French giants rather than through them they have to vary the attack or risk becoming predictable.
Scotland’s big men will surely drive an early lineout, not for any particular reason except to attack the French at their own speciality and put down an early marker. If they make ten yards or milk a penalty, the dent to France’s fragile psyche will be worth the risk of the maul being halted before it has properly got going. Every game of rugby is different so predicting the outcome between two teams that sit cheek by jowl in World Rugby’s pecking order is a thankless task.
Cotter focused on the size of the fight in the dog rather than the size of the dog in the fight but listen to France’s superlative Noa Nakaitaci before writing off the home team:
“Defeat is forbidden,” said the big winger, “you have to win at home.”
France should have just enough desire, or sheer desperation, to squeeze home this afternoon.