Gregor Townsend is ready to pit his wits against the rugby nation he described as “pivotal” to his career.
The former Scotland and Lions stand-off spent five peak seasons of his career playing for Brive then Castres between 1998 and 2002.
The Scotland coach reckons that period of his life tested him like no other and helped shape how he views rugby. Come Sunday he is hoping to mastermind a bounceback victory over the French in his first home Six Nations game in charge of his country.
“It was pivotal because I was there for a long period, five years,” he recalled yesterday. “You went through some good times and some tough ones, it can be a tough place. Especially in the first couple of years.
“It can be exciting at times but pretty one-dimensional at others. You get the whole spectrum of rugby experiences in France.”
Townsend and his coaching team have been undertaking the tricky task of working out how France, under new coach Jacques Brunel, will approach Sunday’s game. “I would have come up against Brunel, he was Perpignan coach at the time I was playing there and they were a tough team to play against, especially away from home,” said Townsend.
“He’s an experienced international coach having coached Italy for many years. And you could tell in that game last week [the late 15-13 loss at home to Ireland] that France got better the longer they were together.
“It must be a tough job coaching the French team bringing people together from more clubs and different ways of playing, but they look to improve throughout that 80 minutes which is a good sign for them.
“We’ve asked ourselves questions ‘how much do we watch from November?’ Obviously we watch individual players.
“There’s a certain expectation for the French national team to play a certain way and there’s certain fundamentals in the French game. The ‘combat’ as they call it, the forward exchanges are very important to them, and the supporters and the club coaches and that’s something they’ll put in straight away.
“The setpiece, the big hits around the tackle area. There were a couple of things from the Ireland game that were similar themes to what we saw in November, one around competing for ball post tackle. It’s something they do more than other teams, so we’ll need to watch out for that.”
It is noticeable that the changes Townsend has made to his starting team bring in the combined experience of 175 caps, compared to the 43 of the six to drop out.
Asked if that was conscious, the coach replied: “It’s a hard one to answer. The players who have maybe been less experienced like Ali [Price] have played really well before. Cornell du Preez has played well before. Now, if the players who have had more experience are also playing well, the combination is a stronger one.
“Those players at the weekend had an opportunity and we played nowhere near as well as we could have. Sometimes that means someone else gets the opportunity the week after, especially if they have shown throughout training or coming on the field that they are on good form.”
No-one brings more of that experience than Laidlaw, who will win his 60th cap and first from the start since Scotland played France in Paris at the same stage of the tournament last year and the scrum-half broke an ankle.
“He played really well the week before, which was above expectations for him to come back after being out for three months and play 80 minutes,” said Townsend of his vice-captain.
“We saw him at training doing well and could just tell with his energy around the group, when he came on he was one of the players in that second half who was taking the game to Wales.
“He’s back in form and it’s a credit to him he is so quickly. He is an important player for Scotland given that he was captain for two or three seasons.
“He’s there to help John Barclay in the leadership, with Ryan [Wilson] our other vice-captain. Already you can tell at training, the talking and getting points across.”
It is hoped that Laidlaw’s nous and calming influence can help coax a more composed performance from key stand-off Finn Russell, who produced an error-strewn showing in Cardiff. Townsend added: “Look I think it can help Finn, it can help the team.
“Ali and Finn have a very good relationship, too. I think it’s important whoever is playing inside and outside Finn are helping him through attack or defence.
“We are fortunate in a lot of ways that we have a lot of cohesion in our group, whether it’s Glasgow guys playing together or Finn and Greig having played a number of times of Scotland.”
Is Russell more likely to take heed of Laidlaw?
“I’m sure it will be the same with Ali,” said the coach. “It always helps in decision making that he can speak to someone with that amount of experience, advising whether he should be putting the ball in behind, ‘what are you seeing in terms of their defence?’
“Greig having had that more experience, he should have the right answers.”
The high-tempo gameplan has come under scrutiny this week but Townsend and his coaches have been adamant it is the execution not the philosophy which was exposed in Cardiff.
“There’s lots of plans in a game,” he said. “You’ve got to adapt to what the defence is giving you, you’ve got to adapt to what is working for you, and you’ve got to be accurate – whether you play a certain style of rugby or a multitude of styles of rugby, accuracy is the most important thing.
“We weren’t accurate enough [last] Saturday in attack or defence.”