Rory Lawson: Confidence Rome win can make difference

Duncan Weir. Picture:  Neil Hanna
Duncan Weir. Picture: Neil Hanna
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RELIEF, elation, celebration. I do not normally get out of my seat watching rugby as I would rather be playing, but Duncan Weir’s sweetly-struck drop goal with 12 seconds to go against Italy brought almost as much joy to me as it would have done had I been there beside him in Rome.

The squad will have put that to bed and be looking forward, now believing that the significance of the Italy win will be measured by the magnitude of performance this evening against France. But I know, having been there, that the Scots have had a gargantuan weight lifted from the shoulders and should be better for it.

Reports from the camp have been really positive this week, with good training banked, the understanding of the gameplan developing and quality of execution sharpening, and there is belief that the players believe they can turn around a wretched recent record against Les Bleus.

It does not surprise me to see Kelly Brown back for this game. Chris 
Fusaro did his reputation no harm but Brown has shown what a consummate professional he is by going back to Saracens and playing out of his skin and, being Saracens’ top defender with a 95 per cent tackle success rate, his defensive qualities and influence as a leader will be crucial tonight.

The balance of the back row is good. David Denton needs to blend his great ball-carrying skills with 
making his presence felt hitting rucks, making tackles and executing his role at the set-piece, while Montpellier’s Johnnie Beattie knows the French mentality now and is a player I love to watch at his best, as he has every skill in his toolbox.

We know that the front five hold the keys to Scotland’s hopes again but, while their importance in attack and set-piece goes without saying, the French love to identify mismatches and will target Scotland’s thicker-set units. In the defensive line, Scotland have good tacklers but in this game they will have to be on their mettle for 80 minutes to suffocate the French power and flair.

Behind the pack a special mention must go to the “Squadfather”, Sean 
Lamont, who becomes Scotland’s third highest cap holder today, with 86. He is a key man in the squad, on and off the field, and knows what it takes to beat the French as a winning tryscorer in 2006.

As ever, I have a close eye on the half-backs and Duncan Weir found himself a little space in the hearts and memories of most Scots with his match-clinching drop-goal in Rome. But he must now kick on (no pun intended) and make the No 10 jersey his own. Greig Laidlaw has had a lot on his plate in recent weeks and, while players dismiss such things, the pressures of captaining his country combined with having huge decisions to make on his club future will have taken its toll. Now that his decision is made to join Gloucester (which I think is a terrific one) and with Brown taking over the captaincy again, I 
predict that we will see Laidlaw back at his best.

The French, as ever, are predictably unpredictable. Coach Philippe Saint-André continues to baffle and intrigue but is fortunate to have a depth of squad that would be the envy of most. With Thierry Dusautoir injured prior to the tournament, the French are captained by second row giant Pascal Pape, who has a presence but also the worst disciplinary record of any player in the Top 14 this season, so he is not unflappable.

Of the seven changes made from their loss in Cardiff, two come to their most influential duo of Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana. 
Sebastien Vahaamahina may be a behemoth, standing at 6ft 7in and 19 stone, but he is a second row new to flanker, and hooker Brice Mach makes his first start, so Scotland have 
weaknesses to attack.

Maxime Machenaud at scrum-half is a confidence player with a point to prove. He is diminutive in stature but is a tidy footballer when given time and space. Although he does not kick regularly for Racing-Metro, he is expected to take on the role today and this could be crucial in what I think will be a close match. His half-back partner Jules Plisson, at 22 years old, is the future for France at ten and this has been his breakthrough season at Stade Francais, but he will need to learn fast after being targeted in Cardiff, with and without the ball.

Much will be said about the set-piece battle this evening, but the defences loom large over the game. When Scotland play well it is largely because every player imposes himself on runners with aggressive line speed, physicality in the tackle and a follow-up fight on the ground at the breakdown. That is vital in this one to gaining control of the game.

After a historic battering in Cardiff the French needed a break and will arrive confident of a victory. They are vulnerable but also dangerous. The heavy pitch could be in Scotland’s favour, not as a leveller, but because it will give the French something else to think about and frustrate them if Scotland start well. So, for me, the start is crucial this evening. France are still in the hunt for the title but looked nowhere near title winners last time out against Wales.

If Scotland can take away their self-belief and handcuff their flair, the foundations will be laid for a special night at Murrayfield.