The 6 Nations is now upon us and as the kick off approaches the focus of attention shifts from the ancestry of players to the important business of the tournament itself.
The annual wave of cautious optimism sweeps Scotland once more, as it does every year, but perhaps this year will be different. There is a new coach, exciting raw talent throughout the squad and both pro-teams are performing well. But then we’ve been here before haven’t we?
Scotland face France on Saturday and regardless of the slow decline in the standards of the French national team over the past few years Scotland will have to put together a strong performance if they’re going to win in Paris. Philippe Saint Andre has picked a line up that performed well in the autumn, but then Vern Cotter has done likewise. So what are they key areas to look out for during Saturday’s match.
1. Play the game. Not the occasion
Much has been made of the importance of the game to the French public following the terrorist attacks in Paris. Both coaches have talked about the impact the crowd might have on the day and a lot of emphasis has been put on the importance of La Marseillaise. But the Paris crowd are notoriously fickle and it will be interesting to see whether the swell of nationalistic pride can sustain itself across 80 minutes if the game isn’t going their way.
Scotland will have to focus on the game and pay no attention to off field factors that might be driving the French players. If Scotland are smart they may even find ways of turning the emotion surrounding the game to their advantage. If the French players are as fired up as Saint Andre would have us believe it won’t take much for that to boil over and have the referee reaching for his pocket.
2. Start strongly
Part of the reason Scotland beat Argentina in the autumn was because they were quick out of the blocks and 14 points up by half time. They started the second half in much the same way and were 24 points ahead at one stage before taking the foot off the gas. Scotland have to start both halves in much the same way as they did against Argentina. If Scotland are going to win in Paris they’re not going to do it by playing catch up.
3. The Scrum
Scotland’s scrum woes continued during the Autumn Tests against both Argentina and New Zealand. There is no denying that Scotland struggle against first tier nations. They’re not going to be able to push France off the ball in the same way as they did with Tonga. Scotland need a plan for dealing with this. Ross Ford can hook but the stability of the scrum suffers as a result. If the scrum goes down the penalities will start racking up and it won’t be long before the referee loses patience. However Ali Dickinson is having something of a renaissance at the moment and Euan Murray always puts in a decent shift but his overall performances are not what they once were. This weekend is a real test of whether Vern Cotter has begun to restore stability to the Scottish scrum. Whatever happens the Scottish props will need to be on top of their game to deal with the 24 stone Samoan warming the French bench.
Scotland cannot afford to rack up penalties against France. The Gray brothers were both regularly pulled up for failing to release tacklers during the autumn, although perhaps their sheer size and Richie’s blonde mop make them an easy target for the referee. Last year Scotland had France on the run and it was only a lack of discipline in range of the post that sealed a narrow win for the French at Murrayfield.
For the first time in years it doesn’t feel like there are any stand out disciplinary liabilities in Scotland’s starting XV. Although we’ve already discussed the risks come scrum time. Rob Harley was binned against Argentina but could justifiably feel hard done by. The risks perhaps lie on the bench in the form of Big Jim Hamilton who lasted just 4 minutes when he came on against Argentina before being sent back to the sidelines. Scotland cannot afford to lose numbers as the match draws to a close.
5. Run fatboy! Run!
Much has been made of the size and physicality of this French team. However the conditioning of the Scottish players is better than it’s ever been and if Scotland can play with the same pace and intensity as they did against Argentina the likes of Basteraud might find it hard to keep up.
Scotland have nothing to fear in Basteraud. They kept him under wraps at Murrayfield last year and with the exception of one break away largely subdued him in Paris two years ago. It may feel like there is a physical mismatch between the huge Frenchman and wee Mark Bennett but the Glasgow man has the hands and footwork to run rings around him.