THIS afternoon’s match sees the two sides who have kicked the ball for the most metres in this Six Nations campaign so far lock horns. France have booted the ball for a total of 2,260 metres in their home victories over Italy and Ireland, while Scotland have made 1,907 metres in their win over England and loss to Wales, with Italy a long way behind in third place on 1,459 metres.
While France are unlikely to deviate too far away from their winning formula, Scotland captain Stuart Hogg indicated during yesterday’s eve of match press conference that he and his team are intent on engineering more opportunities to show what they can do with ball in hand.
The Scots have talked a lot during this campaign about the pride they have in being a tough defensive unit capable of soaking cup wave upon wave of opposition pressure, but there is a concern that this focus has detracted from the attacking potency of players such as Hogg, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe.
“We want to have the complete package – the all-round game both sides of the ball – but no two matches are the same, so sometimes you rely heavily on your attack and sometimes you rely on your defence,” reasoned the full-back, who has a reputation as one of the most dangerous counter-attackers in the world game but has kicked the ball further so far in this campaign than any other player [844 metres], just ahead of Russell in second place [747 metres].
“We’ve analysed it all week and hopefully tomorrow we get the pictures that we’ve seen from the French defence, because we believe there are huge opportunities for us to play with ball in hand,” he continued.
“To have that balance between kicking and running is massive, obviously. You have to play rugby in the right areas so the kicking game is important, and hopefully that will create counter-attack ball because that’s what we want.”
Scotland have shown in flashes that they can still be a formidable attacking force. The tries scored by Ben White against England and by Graham against Wales were the products of imaginative and well-executed moves, while the penalty try against England showed that Russell’s short kicking game can create opportunities out of nothing.
With that in mind, Hogg insisted that there doesn’t need to be a change of emphasis in the way the team approach this game, Scotland just need to be more ruthless in creating opportunities for their danger men to get on the ball in promising positions.
“I think our attack has been pretty good at times,” he stressed. “We scored against Wales after holding the ball for multi-phase, but at times we have let ourselves down with individual skill errors that have come back to bite us.
“Darcy [Graham] has been one of our best over the last couple of games – especially in this Six Nations – and he gets another opportunity tomorrow to show what he’s about,” Hogg continued.
“Hopefully, we can get him and Duhan involved in the game. Both of their stats this season – their tackle-breaks, line-breaks and defenders-beaten – are absolutely incredible, so it is a case of getting those guys the ball and letting them do some damage for us.
“Attack is a lot easier when you are playing on the front foot, and against England and Wales we have struggled to achieve that, but I have no doubt that if we carry hard and move France around the field then we will create space and really get going.
“And the fact that we have played in the wet the last couple of weeks hasn’t been ideal,” he added, which is a fair point because both the England and Wales games were played in monsoon conditions.
Hogg and his team came in for some heavy criticism after their defeat in Wales, notably from Australian Matt Williams, who doesn’t seem to have got over being the most unsuccessful coach in Scotland’s history, when he managed just three wins over Japan, Samoa and Italy between his appointment in 2003 and being sacked in 2005.
The 62-year-old claimed on Irish television that Scotland had exhibited an arrogance after beating England which came back to haunt them in Cardiff.
“They have just got to shut up,” stated Williams. “Until they actually action out and live their talk, they have got to shut up because they are making fools of themselves. They have done this for about four years in a row.”
Not surprisingly, Hogg dismissed Williams’ claims as completely out of sync with reality.
“Certainly, from a players’ point of view, I think we give out the impression that we are confident in our ability and confident in our structures, but we’re far from arrogant,” he said.
“I know exactly who you are referring to, in terms of who said that, and I could be nasty with what I am going to say, but I’ll be respectful and leave it at that,” he added.
Regardless of whether Scotland got ahead of themselves after that Calcutta Cup triumph, the loss in Wales means that this game is do-or-die if they are to contend for a first title of this century. They will need to produced a huge performance against a Grand Slam chasing French team, who have the biggest pack around, some of the most dangerous backs, and a general cohesion which has not always been evident with their predecessors in the jersey.
“They are quality – one of the best French sides that has ever been,” agreed Hogg. “So, we’ve spoken a lot this week about staying in the moment in every single passage of play because if we switch off at any point we’re going to be punished.
“You can analyse teams and everything they’re going to do but does that mean they’re going to play the exact same way? Absolutely not. We have to be in a position to adapt and overcome as we move along the game.
“We have to make sure that we feel in control. I’ve no doubt that we’ll step up and implement our game-plan.”