REMEMBER how the Scots felt following the Calcutta Cup? Well, that is how France feel right now. They are hurting, their pride not only bruised but battered by the relative ease with which Wales saw them off last weekend.
It didn’t even look that difficult. This was a Welsh team that as recently as the 1980s suffered 12 successive losses against France and now even the much-vaunted French scrum has engaged reverse gear!
Kiwi Vern Cotter will take over the Scotland reins from Scott Johnson this summer and, after eight years as head coach of Clermont Auvergne, he is in a better place than most to judge Les Bleus. French loosehead Thomas Domingo is a Clermont player and he returned to his club last week after France let their players enjoy some rest ahead of the fallow weekend.Except that Domingo had anything but relaxation on his mind, as his club coach Cotter explains.
“Thomas is one of ours and he was not a happy man when he returned from Wales,” reported Cotter. “France lost the scrum battle in Cardiff and they take great pride in that aspect of the game. I am sure that the French forwards will have been working hard on the scrum ahead of next weekend and Thomas was straight back into the gym. If the other seven French forwards are all as angry as he is, then the Scots will have a battle on their hands.
“France have good locks who will be well motivated after the Welsh game when Pascal Pape got distracted and started arguing with the referee. The [South African-born] No.8 Antonie Claassen is a good breakaway, although he may not start because Damien Chouly, another Clermont player, offers good lineout options.”
We may focus on the players who won’t be in the French XV – Thierry Dusautoir, Wesley Fofana, Yannick Nyanga and Morgan Parra to name just four – but Cotter knows their replacements almost as well as his own players and he insists that there is a young generation of exciting young stars coming through the ranks to give the French confidence in the future.
“Wenceslas Lauret is the flanker who has the task of filling Dusautoir’s No.7 shirt,” says Cotter. “He did not perform well against Wales but he is a superb player and he is well worth keeping an eye on.
“Scotland have to be careful when kicking. They need to be able to contest for possession when the ball comes out of the sky. If they give time and space to full-back Brice Dulin, he is a dangerous broken-field runner, as is [winger] Yoann Huget. Gael Fickou, who could take over from Fofana in the midfield, has great feet and is very quick. He is a real line breaker.”
That’s something all England fans will confirm, because it was the teenage Fickou who scored his side’s last-gasp winning try at the Stade de France on the opening weekend of the tournament.
The centre made his Test debut 12 months ago against Scotland in Paris. The French won easily enough but the new boy was only on the field for the final six minutes and, in that time, Sean Lamont bumped him off the ball, unseen by the match officials, to create a hole for Matt Scott who raced up field before sending Tim Visser over for a spectacular length-of-the-field try. Fickou was reportedly so embarrassed that he hid from the French coaches after the match. He was just 18 at the time and revenge must be on his mind whether he starts the match next Saturday or makes an appearance off the bench.
“There are a new generation of young French players coming through who play with a lot of confidence,” says Cotter, “and then someone like [veteran winger] Vincent Clerc is returning from injury so he may also be available.
“The first 20 minutes will be important because France will be looking to establish their points of access into this game... scrum, lineout, driving maul and then the speed with which they run through the phases. I think they are going to be very aggressive but, if you take away their points of access in the first quarter, then they will begin to doubt themselves.
“The new group of players who replace those missing will be more than competitive and the French know that fortunes can change very quickly in the Six Nations. A good game against Scotland and they feel that they will be back in contention to win this championship.”