We’re past the halfway point of this year’s 6 Nations and Scotland can still, mathematically, win the tournament. That’s not bad given the calls for Scotland to be kicked out after the abysmal showing against England. However in the cold light of day the solitary victory against Italy might not mark a corner being turned but a corner being tentatively peeked around.
Scott Johnson’s selection policy continues to baffle a large proportion of supporters but we’re in the home stretch of his tenure as interim Scotland coach. These articles aren’t intended to rehash selection debates. The Laidlaw/Cusiter arguments are as old as time, just ask Mike Blair and Rory Lawson.
France visit Murrayfield on Saturday tea time. Scotland’s struggles with form are eternal but France are a nation on the slide. The winners of last year’s wooden spoon (anyone call for them to be chucked out?) are suffering as a result of big money foreign signings pouring into the Top 14 and gradually dropping down the IRB rankings. However they are still capable of turning it on as England found to their cost. Since then they played sporadically good rugby against Italy before imploding in Cardiff. So how do Scotland wring the neck of the French cockerel?
1) Target Plisson
Scotland targeted Tomaso Allan against Italy and it worked. Allan was unable to bring runners into the game and was completely isolated on occasion. France’s biggest attacking threat comes from Huget and Medard and starving them of service, as Wales did, will go a long way to nullifying their impact on the match.
Slowing service from Jules Plisson will also help Scott and Dunbar deal with Bastareaud who only tends to threaten when he’s able to build up a bit of steam. They’ll also have to get hit him up high to prevent him getting any offloads to anyone running off his shoulder.
Plisson hasn’t been forced to make many tackles and this is the first game he’s played without Fofana outside him. Scott, Dunbar and Hogg should all be looking for quick ball from Weir and Laidlaw. If they keep chipping away they might just find a way through.
2) Keep the ball
It might sound logical, but Scotland have shown in the past that it’s possible to win matches without seeing a lot of the ball which might tempt them to try again. However whereas some teams get frustrated continually running at brick walls, the French tend to get frustrated when they don’t have a lot of the ball. France’s performance against Wales was similar to Scotland’s against Ireland, limp and lacking any spark of creativity. If Scotland can starve the French of possession and build up some momentum the penalties, and maybe even some cards, will come.
3) Keep Murrayfield alive
You can hire as many fire flingers, cannons, bagrock groups and smoke machines as you like but if the team don’t come out all guns blazing the atmosphere in Murrayfield will fall flat in minutes. If Scotland can build momentum, keep the ball and get some rolling mauls going the crowd will get behind them. But if the match descends into a grinding 80 minutes of collapsed scrums and play moving from ruck to ruck without actually threatening attack it’ll be a long day at the office for all involved.
Of course the players bear some responsibility for creating an atmosphere but some must lie with the fans. The SRU have perhaps gone too far in trying to get everyone in the mood, but something has to change. That change cannot be created by having some bloke stand on the pitch burling a ball of fire over his head. It might look good in slow motion on the BBC but in the upper reaches of the stadium it just looks like one of the Celts from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves has got a bit lost and wandered onto the pitch.
We covered this last season, but fans need to create their own entertainment during dull moments in games. Scottish football fans, perhaps used to being on the wrong end of a beating, will inexplicably launch into Doe-A-Dear from the Sound of Music. This writer watched Scotland take on New Zealand in Leeds in the Quarter Finals of the Rugby League World Cup and despite a heavy loss to the Kiwis the atmosphere amongst Scottish fans was livelier than some Murrayfield showings. The sound of fans singing “we only score when we want to” when Scotland scored their only try in the dying minutes was heart-warming.
Scott Johnson’s lack of poker skills were evident two weeks ago when he announced the team to face Italy earlier than necessary. He repeated that this week but went further talking candidly about how the game would not be played on the ground. It wouldn’t take much for France to adapt their game a little and surprise Scotland so the forwards will have to be quick to the breakdown to seal off the ball and prevent turnovers and penalties.
Edinburgh showed that a good rolling can be hard to stop (legally). Scotland have the weight and ability in the forwards to push the French pack backwards. If they can they’ll get the crowd’s tails up and the French are more likely to be penalised.
5) Protect Weir
Duncan Weir has benefited from a prolonged period in the 10 shirt and has grown in confidence every week despite the results. It took guts to land that drop goal. Had he missed Scotland would not only be a certainty for this year’s wooden spoon but they would have dropped to 12th in the IRB rankings. As it is Italy dropped to 14th and Scotland currently sit in 10th place and could climb above Argentina if they beat France.
However, looking at the stats it’s clear teams are targeting Weir in the same way they targeted Laidlaw when he wore the fly half shirt. Weir missed a fair amount of tackles against Italy and was exposed for one of the English tries. If France can suck in some forwards and get Bastareaud in at first receiver near the try line it’ll be a massacre. Scotland need to find some way of supporting Weir in defence.
Additional reporting by the Scottish Rugby Blog staff