It turns out that BT Murrayfield is less of a fortress and more like a Butlins’ Holiday Camp for the visiting teams. Never in the 133-year-old history of the championship have Scotland lost eight games in a row at home but that is the fate that awaits them should they fall to France this afternoon. Hi-di-hi!
You have to listen to a lot of mumble during the Six Nations but some prize for blind optimism surely goes to the journalist who hinted that Scotland may have crept into complacency after beating Italy. Complacent! Really?
The Scots last bested France back in 2006 and, since that season, Scotland have won just nine (and drawn one) of the 48 championship ties they have played, or one in five, with Italy the habitual fall guy. Little wonder that another journalist was asking players about “the lost decade”. If Scotland wasn’t the laughing stock of the other home nations it was only because their ridicule had morphed into sympathy, which is infinitely more damning.
That decade without win against France means that Scotland boasts their worst record against the team they used to beat every other year, with all the regularity of the seasons. Just one Scot in today’s squad has tasted victory over France, 35-year-old Sean Lamont who supplied two tries back in 2006.
The veteran campaigner starts this one on the bench, but the man who sports his No.11 jersey, Tim Visser, is promising not to rest on Roman laurels after Scotland at least ensured that they shouldn’t finish bottom of the Six Nations food chain.
“We’ve literally accomplished nothing in this Six Nations,” says the Dutch winger. “We’ve won one game, in Italy, and we need to back that up so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves at all.”
Visser went on to talk up the French threat and in that respect he was seconded by Vern Cotter who knowns them better than most: “If you give France space they will cut you apart.” With players like Wesley Fofana, Gael Fikou and Virimi Vakatawa in a potent back division, the French have several routes to success even if the Scotland coach seems pretty sure sure where the principle threat lies.
“You look at the culture, what French people bring to the game, and the first thing is the physicality,” Cotter said at the team announcement. “We know that is the way they will play, a zero-pass game and shift us up the paddock. Move bodies and shift us up. We know it is coming. We need to be ready for it.”
He was backed up by skipper Greig Laidlaw who also underlined the one aspect that France always bring to the party.
“They’ll bring big physicality and we’ll need to deal with that, match that, first and foremost,” said the smallest man on the field, although just how Scotland intend to deal with it is the sticking point; better than they did against England, or so the Murrayfield faithful will hope.
Scotland failed to match England’s physical onslaught, especially at the breakdown where bodies were flung out of the contact area with cartoon-like efficiency. The French will be just as aggressive as England but, Cotter will hope, less able to maintain that ferocity throughout the full 80 minutes, especially if the Scots can keep the ball in play and the tempo high.
Against England the Scots moved the ball two passes from the breakdown before taking contact in an effort to avoid the big beasts and they will probably try something similar today, target backs, especially Francois Trinh-Duc, and keep altering the point and the angle of attack because running straight into the heart of the French forwards is like handing them the ball on a platter.
Scotland stopped the Italian driving maul but the French are bigger and technically sounder than the Azzurri. The Scots bossed the Italian set scrums but you doubt they will get much change from the French. The Scottish lineout is the worst in the championship, with an 82 per cent success rate, and their tackle completion at 86 per cent is stubbornly below the magic 90 per cent number that signifies Alamo-like defiance.
In the run up to this match Laidlaw insisted, “the defence is becoming more consistent” but he may have been attempting to convince himself as much as anyone else. Defence near the Scots’ own try line looks like General Custer’s last stand with the outcome every bit as ugly. The Scottish defence was the softest of all tier one countries in the World Cup and they have already conceded seven tries in this tournament.
Whenever the opposition big men get near the Scotland line they tend to come away with something, England’s George Kruis and Italy’s Marco Fuser both scored from short range, and France boast more big lumps than anyone else in the tournament.
He can’t be blamed for those two tries but defensive deficiencies may be the reason Mark Bennett finds himself watching today’s game. All of Scotland’s starting backs are better attackers than defenders with the exception of Bennett’s replacement, Alex Dunbar, who has been drafted in to shore up the midfield. Bennett was hurried back into action after injury with undue haste due to a lack of options and there is a nagging feeling that Cotter is doing the same with Dunbar, only without the same excuse.
The new starting midfield duo will play a crucial role this afternoon. Should they succeed the coach will be vindicated but while Duncan Taylor has form on his side, there are doubts whether he shares Bennett’s handy knack of scoring tries. Sitting one of his proven scorers out of this contest altogether is a high-risk move by the Kiwi coach.
Today’s match has been billed as a perfect contrast in rugby styles, the full court game of Scotland against the strong arm stuff from La France, but it isn’t that simple. France don’t look terribly organised but they may not need to be given the mix of muscle and individual skill they have on call. The visitors have too much talent out wide not to give the ball width once they are deep inside the Scotland half.
While Scotland want to keep the ball in hand they are sure to test the French wingers under the bomb. Moreover, the backs can’t fling the ball wide until the Scottish forwards have earned their pay by getting on the front foot. The last time Scotland beat France, one of their two tries came from a 30-metre driven maul and you suspect that the home pack will need to perform at their Sunday best if Scotland are to win this one.
A close game will probably come down to which team executes best on the day and Scotland should have the confidence that comes with knowing exactly what they are trying to do; not an accusation anyone has lobbed at this French team.