For donkeys’ years the line has been, “you never know which French team will turn up”. Well, you can say the same about Gregor Townsend’s Scotland now – as indeed of Vern Cotter’s last season. Or you can roll out the words of Alan Jones, coach of the great 1984 Wallabies: one day a rooster, the next a feather duster.
Not many good things came out of Cardiff, but one was that we had no excuses to offer. Wales were good; we were bad. Simple as that. Nevertheless it was an odd match because in the first half we looked likely to score more often than Wales, and didn’t, while they had only, I think, three chances and took two of them.
Greig Laidlaw might have come back into the starting XV for this match anyway, but it would be wrong and foolish to make Ali Price the scapegoat. The long pass that Gareth Davies alertly intercepted certainly looked careless. It was, I thought, a miss-pass, except that there was no Scot between him and his target to be missed. Consequently there was no guard against an interception. But shouldn’t there have been one whatever the pass, instead of a great gaping hole?
The second try came after he was whistled up for a squint put-in on our five-metre line. Probably he should have been aware that referees are now being encouraged to apply this law, enforcement of which is something that a scrum-half of Ali’s tender years has rarely experienced. No doubt he’ll be wiser now.
But really we lost because, apart from some ill-judged risky play, the forwards almost never delivered go-forward ball, and the lineout fell apart. At half-time I thought we would take stock, and return to put pressure on the Welsh. But the second half was worse than the first.
What of tomorrow? What of France? Writing in the Irish Times last week, the former Scotland coach Matt Williams said this was the worst French team he had seen in his lifetime. Well, one never had much respect for Mr Williams’ judgment in his Murrayfield days, and France were only a missed penalty or an Irish knock-on after the 80th minute away from what would have been a deserved victory.
It’s difficult nevertheless to judge their performance. They began nervously, which was understandable in view of their recent record and the fact that they were a new team cobbled together by a new coach. Ireland had chances to get well ahead, but were strangely uncertain and lacking in ambition. The conditions were poor, but steady rain isn’t exactly unfamiliar to Irish players. It didn’t help that the kicking from hand of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray was so poor. Murray had an outstanding Lions tour, but on Saturday he was desperately slow and easy to read. By half-time the French had taken their measure and had the better of the second half till the clock went red and Ireland played the old Munster possession game supremely well to set up Sexton’s drop goal.
So what of France today? Their pack is certainly powerful, and will surely try to squeeze the life out of ours. On the other hand they will miss the injured Kevin Gourdon who was outstanding against Ireland. Jacques Brunel has sprung a surprise by recalling Lionel Beauxis to take over from the injured teenager Matthieu Jalibert at fly-half, with last week’s replacement Anthony Belleau again consigned to the bench.
It’s a very long time since Beauxis was seen as the bright future of French rugby, ten or a dozen years ago indeed. He’s had a few clubs since then and is currently at Lyon, sharing fly-half duties with Freddie Michalak. He’s an old-fashioned No 10, as old-fashioned as Morne Steyn. Like Steyn he has a mighty boot, and prefers to lie deep in the pocket rather than challenging the line. So it looks as if France will be aiming to kick long, either down the middle or to the corners, with the aim of pinning Scotland back and then exerting pressure at close-quarters and mauling lineouts. Moreover they have two fast wings, one of them very powerful, to chase kicks and harry the receiver.
Scotland, on the other hand, will surely want to play fast – but not, please, loose – and move the French pack around as Ireland failed to do. Despite the failure at Cardiff, we have a back division of proven try-scorers – but the forwards have to do their work first.
Meanwhile today Wales have the chance to show that England v Ireland won’t, as many suppose, be the deciding match of the tournament. Fortune has favoured Warren Gatland this year. I’m pretty sure he would have stuck loyally with Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb at half-back, but injuries forced his hand and Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies were outstanding against Scotland. Eddie Jones has been wondering whether Patchell will “bottle it” in Twickenham’s cauldron. This suggests to me that it’s Mr Jones who is a touch apprehensive.