By Alan Dymock
Whatever is said in haste before Saturday – whatever defensive line is thrown out or snarling reply comes back – it is only because both Scotland’s and France’s head coaches are under so much pressure.
There are big differences between Philippe Saint-Andre’s side and Scott Johnson’s Scotland. One started the Six Nations well, winning a tight game against England without playing magnificently, but has deteriorated to the stage where they looked bewildered more than a little overawed against Wales. The other was spanked in their first two games but got the salving win their egos needed, away to Italy. However, a loss for either side heaps unbelievable pressure on the man in charge of the failures.
Well, technically that is not true. It is the manner of loss that would be important for Johnson should they fall, while any loss would see albatrosses circling Saint-Andre’s head.
See, while Johnson has been facing questions about why now is the time to re-select captain Kelly Brown and chuck out another totally different back-row combo, he has answered that he has assessed France’s strengths. “He (Brown) is a better fit for this team, this game,” Johnson informed the inquisitors.
Johnson has picked a team that he hopes will be able to slam into French mauls without wilting; guys he knows are fully fit and who are strong, or who Johnson perceives to be wise to French tricks. Brown and David Denton are strong, Johnnie Beattie is in form and plays in France. Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton are big boys who play in France. There’s not much he can do with his backs.
The coach may well have flirted with bringing Ross Ford back in for his bulk, but he has learnt one thing, if only because it was getting screamed at him every game: the Scottish people demand a form player at hooker. Because for all the ridiculous talk of looking to win future tournaments and performing beyond means, all Scotland’s fans want right now is to compete with the big boys. Scaring France and losing will not be ideal, but it will be a vast improvement on being thoroughly embarrassed against Ireland and England and perhaps fewer will be calling for Johnson’s head if Scotland run close.
Saint-Andre, on the other hand, has to win. Despite the moments of confusion, the continued, bubbling resentment between clubs and country, the indiscipline, a dropped No 8 and a lack of leadership on the park, France will be expected to win this regardless of the venue. Losing to this Scotland team would signal an incredible low for France.
Saint-Andre can call out his players as much as he wants, and in many games his playing staff have let him down. But when this happens often, eventually you have to ask why. “There is unbelievable talent within the French ranks, yet they cannot be organized for a game like this or motivated for it?” you may ask. Sometimes the coach has to carry the can.
Whichever way you cut Scotland versus France, there is no outcome that suits both. One member of the Beleaguered Coaches Club will have a head-splitting migraine come Sunday morning, and it will have nothing to do with celebratory boozing.