Scotland chase history and a place in the Nations Cup final

The last time Scotland won six games in a row they clinched the Calcutta Cup and a Five Nations Grand Slam with a never-to-be-forgotten victory over England at Murrayfield.

Chris Harris congratulates Scott Cummings on his second-half try in Scotland's 28-17 win over Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup in Florence. Picture: Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images
Chris Harris congratulates Scott Cummings on his second-half try in Scotland's 28-17 win over Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup in Florence. Picture: Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

Thirty years on, and they are one game away from equalling the record. The prizes on offer are less glittering but significant nonetheless. A win over France in Edinburgh on Sunday would go a long way to securing a place in the final of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup but would also add another layer of indomitability to Gregor Townsend’s squad.

The 28-17 triumph over Italy on Saturday was their fifth on the bounce and highlighted another side to this team. Scotland were second best in the first half in Florence but showed patience and determination to turn the game in their favour.

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Detractors may point to the current run including two wins over Italy and one against Georgia but it also incorporated a first victory in Wales in over 18 years and a home win against this Sunday’s opponents back in March. Scotland were the only team to beat France in the Six Nations but the jury remains out as to whether that was down to a superlative performance by the home side or a French off day.

Duncan Weir kicked four out of four conversions on his first start for Scotland in over four years. Picture: Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

Townsend, not surprisingly, is inclined to plump for the former but is realistic about the scale of the task awaiting Scotland this weekend.

Asked how highly he rates France in the global game, he said: “I think they’re the form team. New Zealand have lost a couple of games, South Africa haven’t played, so those were the top teams in the world, whereas France have gone out and scored lots of tries against Wales and Ireland. So they and England look to be the form teams just now in the world.”

Most observers would expect an Anglo-French final in the Nations Cup but you write off this Scotland team at your peril. There is a harder edge to the 2020 model after a bruising experience at last year’s World Cup.

Having said that, Scotland’s cause has probably not been helped by France’s game against Fiji being cancelled due to Covid-19 positives in the latter camp.

Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe scored a first-half try against Italy.

The French had planned to bring a more experimental side to Edinburgh given it was the second of their three Group B matches. But there is now no need to rest players and France will be at full strength at Murrayfield, with the likes of Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas all expected to play.

“They’re coming with a strong squad,” acknowledged Townsend. “For us to beat that team we’re going to have to be at our best, and [with] what we believe will be our best team to take France on.

“Now, that could be a similar team to the one that played against Italy, but there are a couple of injuries, and it might be that we review the game and look at combinations that might be better suited to France.

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“If they had come with a different team it would have presented a really different challenge. They would have brought a tough game when the expectation, the pressure to win, was off, and players we don’t know that much about.”

Rory Sutherland was helped from the field after injuring his ankle in the first half against Italy. Picture: Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

France barely fired a shot in anger at Scotland in March, save for Mohamed Haouas’ right-hook at Jamie Ritchie which landed the French prop a red card. It was a strangely tepid performance from a side which had kick-started the tournament with a win over England.

“A lot of that was down to the way we defended,” suggested Townsend. “They kicked the ball much less against us back in March than they had done in other games and than they have done since.

“They did look to attack against us and we defended really well that day. They’re a dangerous team. They do play more pragmatically than maybe their try-scoring looks like in the highlights package. But we’ll have to be ready for sniping runs from Dupont, [for their] offloading game, and they’re very creative at times too.

“The fact that they got a red card - they’ll believe that was a big factor in the win. So their confidence won’t be affected by coming back to us, and they might have a point to prove that that was the only game they lost this year.”

Ritchie lasted just 15 minutes in Florence after suffering a head knock and will have to pass return-to-play protocols if he is to be considered for France. Prop Rory Sutherland had a similarly brief outing in Italy before being helped off with a damaged ankle which looks unlikely to heal in time for Sunday.

Fraser Brown and George Horne missed the Italy game with head and toe knocks respectively, and could return.

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Ritchie has developed into a key player for Scotland and his absence for 65 minutes was felt in Italy. Nevertheless, the Scotland forwards stepped up to the plate once again and second-half tries from Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings and George Turner helped turn a 14-7 deficit into a 28-17 victory. Duhan van der Merwe dotted down for a first-half try and Duncan Weir marked his first start in four years with a steady performance which included four conversions.

Italy, whose forwards were excellent in the first half, only had one try to show for their efforts but it was the pick off the bunch, executed by Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi after a fine break by centre Marco Zanon. Their 20-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi looked assured and kicked four penalties.

Townsend will excuse himself from the hype surrounding Scotland’s bid to equal the wins record but is aware of the benefits.

“The belief that gets created from winning certainly helps, and knowing that one of the top teams in the world is coming to town next week will get our focus,” he said.

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