That was fun. Or was it? Not much cheering during most of that second half, but for Greig and the boys to close it out was brilliant.
With an extra day to prepare before Scotland begin round 2 of the 2017 Six Nations, attention in the Scotland camp now turns to Paris. While the emotional side of your brain rushes off to buy a Grand Slam Winners t-shirt, the other side should be urging you not to get carried away. Especially when Scotland are still seen as an inferior team by some wind-up merchants over the (Irish) sea.
Scotland beat France at Murrayfield last year in some style but haven’t won in Paris since 1999. That was a particularly vintage Scotland team who ended up 5 Nations Champs… do our plucky lads have the makings?
Things to work on
The line speed in defence was hugely impressive but Scotland conceded a large number of penalties for offside in a loosely-disciplined performance. That intensity level in defence is exactly what Scotland need to do to compete with the really top teams – of which Ireland are undoubtedly one – but on another day with another ref, there could have been more penalties or even a card. The first half tackle count alone suggests the level of work Scotland have to put in to stay in a contest; they can’t have the ball all of the time, but they can’t last the tournament making 200+ tackles a game just to maintain test match intensity.
Despite it seeming like a dominant first half – and in a lot of ways it was – it was almost one dimensional approach Scotland used in attack. Preferably from a lineout (as the scrum was crumpling): a big hit up from one of the Grays, Strauss or another forward, maybe a couple more close in then spin it out to Russell who often hit Hogg straight away: score try, or fail, and repeat. The top ball carriers were Jonny Gray (14), Richie Gray (13) and Stuart Hogg (12) which bears this out.
Dunbar had very little crash ball to work with (he was third in lineouts won though), while Watson and Wilson rarely got their offload games going. Laidlaw made no breaks that I noticed. The stats say Scotland had 4 line breaks, 4 offloads and only beat 4 defenders. It doesn’t sound like much for a team that were rampaging and 21-8 up at half time does it? It sounds more like a team that were steady, and yet who managed to be very clinical in the red zone.
Scotland were excellent at the breakdown: the ball was quick enough, with the fast rucking style Cotter wants still in place and Laidlaw getting it moving.
The next step is to vary it more.
As the tournament goes on, the available footage will make it a lot easier for teams to stop Scotland.
Ironically when Ireland got their offloads going it was devastatingly – almost fatally for Scotland – effective. There are parallels with Glasgow’s approach to Munster when compared to the way they played Racing and Leicester – although this time the Scottish team managed to take their chances and win.
Now they’ve survived that tussle and a very large green monkey removed from their backs, we might, I hope, see something very different in St Denis.
With Racing 92, the gameplan was to move them about and similar tactics could bear fruit against a French team who dropped off badly against England.
The bonus that the Ireland result offers is that aside from Dunbar’s lineout sneak – which he can now bluff with every time he lines up at that set piece – Scotland didn’t reveal any flash attacking plays. The inside ball to Seymour from a set scrum or ruck has been on the go since Visser debuted, and Hogg’s second, while a thing of beauty, was mostly down to quick hands from Huw Jones and Hogg’s individual instincts.
Scotland got the win and almost the tournament’s first try bonus point without showing too many of the cards up Jason O’Halloran’s sleeves, that they might need to unpick better-briefed defences.
Beware the threat from France
So what of the French opposition? As usual, write them off at your peril. England almost did and hilariously, the French back three had their best game in years against England. They have a considerable size advantage on our own unit and were frighteningly skillful at times, when in recent years they’ve just been frightening. We can’t rely on Scott Spedding suddenly becoming spectacularly bad again. There were moments during Ireland’s purple patch when the Scots kicked away too much ball and we must avoid this reversion to type.
The big threat in the pack is King Louis Picamoles who seems to be benefiting from his time at Northampton. He had a colossal performance against England and always kept France moving.
France are also huge in the scrum and while their massive props don’t like running all that much, if Scotland have one of those games where they knock everything on then it could be a long day at the office for the Scottish front row.
Speaking of the scrum, it looked like Ireland’s dominant front row were taking a slight sideways step just after the engage but before the shove came on, so that any pressure forced Dell inwards. Some way to prevent that – even if France’s monster props got caught doing it where Ireland didn’t – needs to be found.
Do we need changes?
Finn Russell and Fraser Brown were the only injury concerns and were both cleared to train on Monday. So unless anything flares up over the week there should be no enforced changes, which puts Vern in the luxurious position of making purely tactical ones.
If we are following the standard line that the French lack fitness, there’s an argument to bolster the scrum initially, then bring pace off the bench. To that end Reid and Ford could partner Fagerson in the scrum, with the more athletic Dell and Brown moved to the bench for impetus late on when there should be a bit more space in the loose. Part of me thinks stick Ford on the bench anyway and bring him on after 5 minutes; he seems to react very well to being dropped. The guys over at the Thistle podcast (check it out if you haven’t already) tell us that Brown will start and Reid comes in to start.
Alternatively, Scotland could just run it so much that a) the starting props are knackered inside 20 minutes (this worked v Racing) or hope b) there are no scrums. Fat chance of that.
In the back row, the blend was pretty good. For reasons similar to the above there is an argument for swapping Watson to get his pace coming off the bench, but I’m not buying it. The balance was pretty good as Barclay’s fresh legs and cool head made a couple of hugely useful plays late on against Ireland. I’d keep it as is. Edinburgh’s Cornell du Preez needed to have played like Picamoles against Munster to break in: he didn’t.
Glasgow’s new signing Huw Jones should be well up to speed and pretty unfamiliar to the French (although even they’ve started sharing his YouTube highlights around this week) so should retain his place. He should now be familiar with his teammates, but he’s on one stormer of a game (sorry), one good game, one okay one and one 5 minute cameo. Let’s not put too much pressure on just yet; Mark Bennett is breathing hard down his neck for a start which will be pressure enough. Bennett could of course be distracted by contract negotiations (Huw might have been last week?), and there is also the prospect that Duncan Taylor might be fit again too.
It might also be suggested that Scotland start Price for the extra pace he brings, and bring Laidlaw on to close the game out if necessary. It’s not a terrible idea but it leaves Russell with the kicking duties when his concentration might be better served elsewhere. There’s also the possibility that the game doesn’t start to plan and Laidlaw is incredibly good at quickly getting Scotland back on message when before they might have wandered aimlessly for 30-40mins.
In all likelihood we’ll see the same 23 against France, possibly shuffled around a little.
England did not test France hard until they were running out of steam. Scotland’s skills look sharp and with some good weather we could see one of the attacking games of the Championship. It could be an absolute cracker, but we should definitely not get carried away.
France will be a very tough nut to crack, but it doesn’t mean Scotland shouldn’t try.