France are gunning for the title, Scotland for second spot. And Wales could be left with the broadest smile. What a cracking finale to the 2021 Six Nations in Paris tonight
Six Nations France v Scotland Preview
So, we arrive at the climax to this madcap Guinness Six Nations championship. France and Scotland were meant to have met in late February but now bring the curtain down on a tournament with a galaxy of twists and turns.
Let’s start with the maths. France’s last-gasp win against Wales last weekend means they can clinch their first Six Nations title since 2010. To do that, they must beat Scotland by at least 21 points and score at least four tries. Or, in a similar but far less likely scenario, they must win by 20 points and score at least six tries.
Failure to do either would give Wales the championship that they came so agonisingly close to securing at Stade de France last Saturday night.
Scotland have no title to play for but could finish runners-up for the first time since the tournament was expanded to six teams in 2000. That is quite an incentive. To achieve that, they must overcome a Paris hoodoo because it’s 22 years since they won in the French capital.
Who can forget that astonishing spring day in 1999 when Scotland scored five tries in 27 first-half minutes? Wales’ defeat of England the next day gave the Scots the last-ever Five Nations title. Two decades on, all of Wales is hoping Scotland will return the favour.
What do Scotland require to get second place? To win with a try bonus point while restricting France to one bonus point. Or to win by at least eight points whilst denying France a bean.
Further motivation for the Scots comes in the shape of Lions squad places, in the week that the Lions board announced their intention to fulfil the existing tour schedule.
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If Stuart Hogg is arguably the only Scot 100% nailed on to be picked by Warren Gatland, there are a host of others in the ’near certainty’ or ‘decent shout’ bracket. Hamish Watson and Finn Russell are obvious ones, but what of Rory Sutherland, Ali Price, Jamie Ritchie, Chris Harris, Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe? We could go on.
Further subplots. Because this game, postponed from February due to a Covid outbreak in the French camp, falls outside the international window, Gregor Townsend can only select five English-based players. Thus, Saracens’ Sean Maitland, a 53-cap regular, misses out, along with a string of squad players. Exeter’s Jonny Gray wasn’t available because of a hand injury.
Townsend declared himself satisfied with the arrangement, mainly because he had feared he would have no English-based players at all. Not everyone is quite so content, as this tweet from former Scotland captain Andy Nicol shows…
What of the prospects? The smart money, you feel, is on a French win but not on the necessary scale to deny Wales the title. Les Bleus can be formidable when they get a head of steam up but Scotland are made of sterner stuff these days. They don’t look like a side that are about to roll over.
That was very much the case in last year’s Six Nations, when Scotland ended France’s Grand Slam bid with a 28-17 win at Murrayfield. Maitland scored two of their tries that day in a match skewed by a first-half red card for Mohamed Haouas for punching Ritchie.
The countries met at the same venue in the Autumn Nations Cup, France winning 22-15 to secure their first success in Edinburgh since 2014.
What’s the big team news?
With a short turnaround, both sides ring the changes. Fly-half Matthieu Jalibert incurred a head injury last week and is replaced by Romain Ntamack, who came on against Wales. Ntamack was the top scorer in last year’s championship.
Paul Willemse begins a two-match ban after being sent off for making contact with the eye of Welsh prop Wyn Jones. With fellow lock Romain Taofifenua dropping to the bench, Bernard Le Roux and Toulon’s Swan Rebbadj – making his first Test start – comprise the engine room.
Flanker Anthony Jelonch and centre Arthur Vincent are also recalled, in place of Dylan Cretin and wing Teddy Thomas. Gaël Fickou moves from inside-centre to the wing to accommodate Vincent, while Damian Penaud switches flanks.
DID YOU KNOW? Tonight’s victors will take possession of the Auld Alliance Trophy, which commemorates the 22 French and 30 Scottish internationals killed during the First World War. It was created in 2018 by trophy makers Thomas Lyte
Scotland were forced to make a change to their selected side as No 8 Matt Fagerson dropped out after sustaining an ankle injury in training on Wednesday. Nick Haining comes into the XV and Ryan Wilson joins the bench.
That and Maitland’s absence are just two of the rejigs for Scotland. Like France, they welcome back a star No 10, Finn Russell returning following his concussion against Ireland in round four. Skipper Hogg returns to full-back having stood in at ten against Italy.
Scrum-half Price, centre Harris and hooker George Turner all return to the starting XV. Scott Steele, Huw Jones and Dave Cherry – who scored a double against the Azzurri – must settle for replacement roles. Alongside them will be Adam Hastings, involved for the first time this year following injury and suspension.
What have the coaches said?
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend: “We feel we’re capable of going there and getting a result. We need to win by a few points (five) to get to third and potentially get to second (eight). But that’s what we’re gunning towards.
“We’ve shown that we can play very well away from home and if we do deliver an 80-minute performance we’ll be more than just competitive.
“We’ve played France a couple of times in the last 12 months, they’ve been close games. We didn’t fire many shots against them in November, but it was right down to the last minute.
“We hadn’t won in London in 38 years and hadn’t won in Wales in 18 years. Our players can take a lot of confidence from those two performances. This is an opportunity more than any other when there’s no crowd in the stadium.”
On the late call-up for Ryan Wilson: “We were able to call on Ryan at short notice given Glasgow Warriors had already conducted two Covid tests this week, which meant he was safe to travel and join up with the squad. Given Ryan’s Test-match experience and his form this season, we believe he will grab his opportunity on his return to the squad.”
Scotland defence coach Steve Tandy: “A win would be huge. We’ve been knocking off little bits of history, like winning in Wales and at Twickenham, so this would be another step in the right direction for the group.”
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg: “A lot has been said that’s beginning to hack me off. The fact they’ve got to get 21 points. We read a quote from one of their players (Charles Ollivon) saying that they’ve got a trophy to win. As a proud Scotsman, that hurt me a lot.
“The ongoing thing is that a lot of stuff is written about us that often concentrates on opposition rather than ourselves. We will let our rugby do the talking.
“We win by eight points, and we finish the highest we’ve ever finished in a Six Nations. That’s the motivation for us. It’s going to be one hell of a challenge, an open game of rugby, and we’re really, really excited for it.”
Any interesting statistics?
- France have won 17 of their 21 Six Nations matches against Scotland. All four defeats have been away from home, in 2006, 2016, 2018 and 2020
- The two scrum-halves for this match, Antoine Dupont and Ali Price, have the most try assists in the tournament, with four and three respectively
- France’s penchant for offloading is clear: Dupont (seven), Gregory Alldritt and Julien Marchand (both five) lead the way in the championship, alongside Stuart Hogg (six)
- Duhan van der Merwe and Dupont both need one try to tie with Anthony Watson and Louis Rees-Zammit as top try-scorer (on four). Or two to take that accolade outright
- Van der Merwe has made 29 tackle breaks in the tournament – a dozen more than the next-best in the list, Hogg and Brice Dulin
- Bleus captain Charles Ollivon has the most lineout wins, with 18
- Ryan Wilson will win his 50th Scotland cap if summoned from the replacements bench
- Scotland have had more possession (59%) than any other side in this Six Nations. France (45%) have had the lowest share of possession
- Scotland have the best tackle success rate (93%), ahead of second-best France (89%)
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
France v Scotland, Friday 26 March, Stade de France
This concluding match of the championship kicks off at 8pm (GMT) in Paris and is live on BBC. Or listen on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds or BBC Radio Scotland
England’s Wayne Barnes is the referee, assisted by the RFU’s Tom Foley as TMO. Barnes refereed the sides’ Autumn Nations Cup game in November and was an assistant ref during last year’s Six Nations meeting.
The men with the flag this time are Matthew Carley (RFU) and Andrea Piardi (Italy).
What are the line-ups?
France: Brice Dulin; Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa, Arthur Vincent, Gaël Fickou; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Swan Rebbadj, Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon (capt), Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Dylan Cretin, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Bouthier, 23 Teddy Thomas.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (capt); Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe; Finn Russell, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Sam Skinner, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Nick Haining.
Replacements: 16 Dave Cherry, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Alex Craig, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Scott Steele, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Huw Jones.
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