THE most talented national team in a generation has its best chance for some time of winning a Six Nations title. Those words were spoken about both Scotland and France before this year’s Championship kicked off, and although after two rounds they seem to be considerably more relevant to today’s visitors, Gregor Townsend’s team can change that impression in this game provided they do themselves justice.
After wins over Italy and Ireland, the French have cemented their status as pre-tournament favourites and are the only remaining team who can win a Grand Slam. Having won two Under-20 world championships with the core of the side who will turn out at BT Murrayfield this afternoon, they are on course to reach their peak at the Rugby World Cup itself, which they will host next year. In scrum-half and captain Antoine Dupont they have the best player on the planet right now, and the formidable physicality of their pack can be devastatingly effective.
In short, having finally learned how to play consistently at or near to the top of the game, France will be firm favourites this afternoon. And if they win, they will not only remain securely on course for their first Championship since 2010, they will also, barring the most improbable of statistical quirks, end Scotland’s hopes of their own first-ever Six Nations title.
But lest we rehearse French virtues to the extent that we talk ourselves into meekly accepting defeat, it is worth remembering that there is a lot more to this Scotland team than they have shown so far this year. They displayed remarkable maturity and composure to hit back late in the game against England and win 20-17 despite showing only glimpses of their best form. And, although that composure was conspicuous by its absence for much of the match against Wales, they were still in the game to the end, losing by the same score that had given them victory seven days earlier.
A modest improvement at crucial moments would have won Scotland the match in Cardiff. A more significant step up will surely be needed today, but they are certainly capable of it.
Gregor Townsend has reshuffled his pack, in part because of injuries, but on the whole this is a settled side, full of individuals who know each other’s game well. The only partially unknown quantity at this level is back-row forward Rory Darge, who will be starting his first Test after making his debut off the bench against Wales, and even then he has played well enough for Glasgow this season to persuade Townsend he deserves to be promoted.
So what specifically needs to change from the last outing? The two key words, according to the head coach, are accuracy and discipline.
“The first thing: we weren’t accurate enough,” Townsend said in his team-announcement press conference when asked his settled verdict on the Cardiff match. “We got into a game where it was 14-14, 17-14, 17-17, 20-17, and we believe that if we had been more accurate, particularly in the second half, we would have got more points on the board.
“That’s for us as coaches and players to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And that’s what we’ve been working on this week.
“There were a couple of penalties we gave away in defence which we feel we didn’t need to give away. You’re always going to be under pressure in terms of discipline away from home. Sometimes that works in our favour with the crowd noise and the referee setting his stall out. We put our heads into contact a couple of times and should have stayed on our feet.
“On one occasion we were a bit clumsy when playing the 9. Those are things we can take out of our game.
“Defensively, Wales had one line-break the whole game. We know that we’ve built up a very strong defence, so that’s something to work on. But accuracy is a work-on too, as inaccuracy leads to either putting yourself under pressure or the opposition getting a bit of dominance and then your discipline is under even more pressure.
“Trust is a word which the players have been speaking about this week. Trust in our system and trust in each other and being able to work through a lot of phases in attack and defence and doing the right thing.”
Those are things that Scotland have to put right today, but Townsend is well aware that there will be fresh challenges too – almost certainly tougher challenges. “Where France pose a lot of problems for teams is around their defence and their jackal ability and also their set piece,” he added. “That is a challenge for us this week. It’s a different game and a different team from the one we played two weeks ago. We’ve just got to make sure we adapt to that and get on the right side of the referee.”
Get on the right side of the referee and also get under France’s skin. Scotland have managed to do that in the teams’ last two Six Nations meetings, including the memorable 2021 triumph in Paris that saw them end home hopes of the title.
“We know when we’ve been under pressure and why, but we also know when we put them under pressure there are reasons for that,” Townsend said as he reflected on those recent meetings. “It’s about doing that again this weekend.”