by Katie Field, Rugby World writer
When Scotland last ran out at Murrayfield, three weeks ago, they were the favourites to beat a rebuilt England side. But the unthinkable happened and Scotland lost 13-6, then suffered a 27-13 defeat in Wales a week later. So, as they prepare for their second Murrayfield outing of the RBS 6 Nations, against France this Sunday (3pm), Scotland are in a tight spot. Ahead of them next month are trips to Ireland and Italy, so they really need a home win to belatedly kick-start their tournament. However, they are facing many people’s favourites for the championship and a team they haven’t beaten since 2006.
Scotland have won a good deal of ball in their two matches to date, a sign that their pack has been performing well. Coach Andy Robinson has made just one change to the forwards from the Wales game, bringing John Barclay in to replace the injured Alasdair Strokosch, meaning they are well set to give a strong French pack a good battle.
The lineout contest will be particularly key but if Richie Gray can reprise his excellent individual performance against France last spring, Scotland will be well set to play their up-tempo, multi-phase game.
Scotland’s problem in their first two matches – and in most matches in recent years – has been their finishing. They failed to turn all their possession and territory into a single try against England and butchered yet more chances in Cardiff before Greig Laidlaw finally crossed the whitewash. France had no such problems in their opening match against Italy, scoring four tries and putting on something of an attacking master class. They weren’t able to back that up a week later as their game against Ireland was famously frozen off. Scotland’s defence could provide them with more of a test than Italy’s did, but they key for Scotland is to take their own chances, or perish again.
Coming into the tournament, Edinburgh’s players were riding the crest of a wave, having qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. Robinson might have taken better advantage of that if he had picked the capital club’s in-form half-backs, Greig Laidlaw and Mike Blair. The two of them finally start in tandem this weekend, so it will be interesting to see if they can ignite Scotland’s attack.
Stuart Hogg makes his first start for Scotland after impressing on debut off the bench last time and having a seemingly good try ruled out. He also shone for Scotland A against England Saxons. He is only 19, but a handful of Welsh selections in the last couple of years have shown that if you are good enough, you are old enough, even at Test level. France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has stuck with the same squad that had been due to play Ireland. Wesley Fofana, who made a try-scoring Test debut versus Italy, has had to wait an extra two weeks to see if he can back that up, but he certainly looked the part last time.
With Scotland coming into the match on a losing streak, and with their recent record against France being so bleak, it’s hard to predict a win for the home side. However, France may take a while to get into their stride after their extra-long break, so if Scotland can hit the ground running and get an early score, they will have a sniff of a chance. I have to go for a France win by around ten points, but I won’t be shocked if Scotland prove me wrong.
Scotland v France, Murrayfield, Sunday 26th February, Kick-off 3pm, Live on BBC1
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Rory Lamont, Sean Lamont, Graeme Morrison, Lee Jones; Greig Laidlaw, Mike Blair; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford (capt), Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, John Barclay, Ross Rennie, David Denton.
Replacements: Scott Lawson, Ed Kalman, Alastair Kellock, Richie Vernon, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir, Nick De Luca.
France: Maxime Médard; Vincent Clerc, Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu; François Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra; Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Papé, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Louis Picamoles, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements: William Servat, Vincent Debaty, Lionel Nallet, Julien Bonnaire, Julian Dupuy, Lionel Beauxis, Maxime Mermoz.