Scotland treat France game like a semi-final as Townsend prepares to take on the world’s best
Scotland will treat Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup clash with France as a semi-final as they round off their truncated Group B schedule with a home match against a side who have not won at Murrayfield since 2014.
Gregor Townsend is wary of reading too much into France’s recent poor record in Edinburgh (four defeats in a row) but memories of a fine win in March against the same opponents remain fresh enough to imbue the coach and his squad with confidence.
Ten of the side that won 28-17 in the Six Nations start on Sunday as the Scots seek the victory which would take them into the final of the new tournament.
The outbreak of positive Covid-19 tests in the Fij camp deprives Scotland of a game next weekend and adds a winner-takes-all dynamic to the French match.
“It is pretty much the semi-final,” said the Scotland coach. “It is a massive game for us. To play in the final would be amazing for this group of players and our supporters. That is what we are working towards. There certainly has been a raised level of focus, communication, workrate in training this week knowing we have to deliver our best performance on Sunday.”
If they were to win Group B, Scotland would likely face England or Ireland in the final, although Wales could still spring a surprise in Group A.
While France suffered their only Six Nations defeat in Scotland this year, they did achieve a notable scalp on Welsh soil and Townsend played down the old chestnut about the French not travelling well.
“I think we struggle away from home as well!” he noted. “It’s hard to win away from home in the Six Nations. We have a record that shows that. With France, I think it's more of a cliche now. When I played [in France], French clubs didn’t do that well away from home because there was a real passion about playing at home and the crowds gave teams such a big lift and that may be carried on into the international arena.
“It is tough to win away from home for any team. We have seen that over the last few years. This French team seems to be different because they have a lot of guys who have come up through the under-20s together and they play without fear. Winning in Wales must have been a massive boost for them.
“Home advantage is not as relevant in these Covid times as it was before. You're not getting the crowd advantage. It's the same for the home team as well as the away team. That's the challenge for us. We beat France in March with 60,000 Scots behind us so now we have to create our own atmosphere and energy.”
An empty Murrayfield offers little to lift the players but Townsend is hoping the coaching staff and squad can generate some noise in the cavernous arena.
“We have learned that we have to do more as a coaching staff and subs to create that energy for the players. I feel we’ve done that well in the past two games, in Wales and Italy, where we have brought our own presence. We have to do that again on Sunday. It is a big stadium and sometimes the noise does not travel that far, but we have to make sure we create our own energy. We need any advantage we can get to take on a French team who are in top form.
“It is about responding to moments in games, whether we win a scrum penalty or we’ve had a good defensive set. We want the team to encourage each other on the field, but also those not in the 15 or 23, which includes the management, it is about encouraging the players during the quiet times when maybe the crowd would have been getting behind them. It is very strange for everyone to be playing with no atmosphere.”
Townsend has made five changes, including a new front row, with Oli Kebble, Fraser Brown and Simon Berghan replacing Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally and Zander Fagerson.
Zander’s brother Matt is given the chance to stake a claim at No 8, with Blade Thomson dropping to the bench. The only change in the backs see wing Blair Kinghorn replace Edinburgh club-mate Darcy Graham who drops out of the matchday 23.
There are a couple of intriguing selections among the replacements, with Sean Maitland returning for the first first time since his unscheduled nights out with the Barbarians which landed him an RFU disciplinary charge. “He was very apologetic,” reported Townsend.
Maitland has a happy knack of scoring tries against France, with three in his last four Tests against the French at Murrayfield. He is joined on the bench by his Saracens team-mate Duncan Taylor who was not in the original squad but trained with Scotland and was able to prove his fitness after a shoulder injury.
Scotland are chasing a record-equalling sixth successive Test win and the France game is a huge test of how far this team has come since the disappointment of last year’s World Cup. Townsend is relishing the opportunity to take on a side he regards as the finest on current form.
“We were due to play New Zealand this weekend before the world changed and normally when you play New Zealand they are ranked one in the world,” he said. “Now we are getting the opportunity to play France who have been the best team in the world in terms of results since the World Cup. So you want to see where you are when you take on the best teams because the wins are even more special. It has created a real focus and edge in training. It feels like a proper Six Nations game even though it’s the Autumn Nations Cup.”
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