When he announced the original Six Nations squad Scotland coach Vern Cotter made a forgivable mistake, claiming that every championship opposition, with the exception of Italy, were ranked above Scotland. Even before last Saturday’s thrilling win over Ireland the Scots had nosed ahead of France and, following that victory, they are even further head of Les Blues and a mere 0.02 of a point behind the Springboks in 6th place.
How the mighty have fallen but that is only half the story because Scotland have made huge strides over the last few years, from being whitewashed just two years ago in 2015, to being dark horses for the championship now. A win in Paris would only add spice to the Six Nations soup so here is where we think the game will be won and lost.
1) The Scrum
I know, I know… we said the exact same thing last weekend and for half an hour it looked like we might be right after Scotland conceded three straight arm penalties in this area. However, there were just six scrums all match (six!) and the Scots grew in stature as the game progressed.
France have a love affair with the set scrum and while I am not convinced by Uini Atonio - the 6’ 4”, 24 stones prop has the same mass a medium sized planet - he will certainly take some stopping by Allan Dell who, in other walks of life, would be labelled a pie eater himself at 17 ½ stone. Perhaps the young South African can get under the huge New Zealand born tighthead because unless he finds a way to dissipate the weight advantage, France will milk the set scrums for all they are worth.
Scrum, penalty, kick to touch, lineout, drive, penalty, three points, merci et bon nuit.
2) The Big French Beasts
We saw “King Louis” Picamoles at his rampaging best last week and another good turn from the French number eight will mean problems for Scotland. Indeed, Guy Noves has dropped a lineout specialist, Damien Chouley, in favour of a third ball carrier in the third row, Loann Goujon.
When confronted by big lumps running straight the obvious thing to do is to ask the first tackler to go low, which should at least stop the ball carrier. Sadly the tactic does little to stop the offload and this French pack has skills to go with its beef. If they get gain line success they won’t die with the ball but look for offloads. In this respect they are a little like the Scots who also field an entire eight who are happy with the ball in hand.
This is the key for me. Scotland have to stop the big beats from causing havoc if they are to have hope of staying in this game long enough to win it.
3) Scotland’s Conditioning
One of the reasons Picamoles was so effective was that the big lump was a lot smaller than he used to be because he has access to the right conditioning at Northampton. He had lost five kilos and was ten times more effective as a result.
French clubs still don’t pay too much attention to strength and conditioning if all the rumours are right and the longer Scotland stay in contention the more they will fancy their chances of winning this one. The longer Scotland hold onto French coat tails, the more nervous the home side (and the home fans) will become.
The lightweight Scottish pack are all athletic and will back themselves to run the French off the park.
4) Brilliant Backs
France will miss Wesley Fofana but his replacement Gael Fickou scored against Scotland last season and France have their threats. Scott Spedding looks quicker than he has been in recent years, the new scrumhalf Baptiste Serin is a live wire and both Fijian born wingers, Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa, are dangerous runners given the ball in some space.
Scotland too have their dangers and if the French focus all their defensive attentions on Stuart Hogg then so much the better for Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland and the outside centre Huw Jones from the South African Super Rugby Stormers, whom the French have never faced before.
France are not as defensively disciplined as some others so Scotland should get chances. The flip side is that Scotland’s defence was a little porous at times last Saturday, especially in the midfield, so France will feel confident of finding the line themselves.
I am forecasting a high scoring game with the game decided by whether or not the French big men win their gain line battle…