Six Nations: Scotland bidding to lift 22-year Paris hoodoo

France have their eyes on the title but Scots will be dangerous foes at Stade de France

Gael Fickou has been moved to the wing for the visit of Scotland on Friday night. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Gael Fickou has been moved to the wing for the visit of Scotland on Friday night. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

 

Six Nations: France v Scotland, Stade de France (8pm Irish time, live on Virgin Media)

Once upon a time Scotland won a match in Paris, a story that dates back to the last century. While exaggerated for effect it’s nevertheless 22 years since a side inspired by then outhalf and now head coach, Gregor Townsend – a try scorer on the day – managed to escape with a victory in what was the first match between the countries at tonight’s venue.

Losing may indeed be habit forming but Scotland should glean some confidence from the fact that defeats in recent years in the French capital have tended to be one score games or thereabouts with one exception and perhaps more pertinent that their performances in this season’s Six Nations don’t reflect the position in the table; albeit that they could still finish second. 

France, meanwhile, must win by 21 points and earn a four-try bonus point in the rearranged clash if they are to pip Wales to the title.

Townsend’s team beat England and Italy, threw away victory against the Welsh even allowing for Zander Fagerson’s red card and against Ireland managed a Lazarantine recovery before carelessly handing the spoils to the visitors. The Scots have played some cracking rugby along the way and despite the unfortunate absence of Sean Maitland will pose the French problems in defence.

Finn Russell’s return after missing the Italy game with concussion issues means that the visitors won’t die wondering, the outhalf capable of the sublime and the ridiculous often in the same match. There is plenty of zip and football acumen in the backline, even allowing for the return of the defensively strong Chris Harris in preference to Huw Jones, the latter more gifted in attack.

And then there is Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain capable of single-handedly ruining the night for Shaun Edwards and the rest of the French coaching staff and players if given a scintilla of space. Openside flanker Hamish Watson has been outstanding while Fagerson’s return – his brother and number eight Matt was a late cry off and is replaced by Nick Haining – at prop should solidify the scrum.

George Turner is perhaps surprisingly recalled at hooker given his horrendous lineout experience against Ireland and the fact that his successor for the Italian match, David Cherry, scored two tries. To have any chance the Scots will need their tight five to turn up in a meaningful way on both sides of the ball.

French coach Fabien Galthie has made five changes with two enforced, one by an injury to Mathieu Jalibert, the other because of Paul Willemse’s suspension. Romain Ntamack and Swan Rebbadj deputise, Bernard Le Roux comes into the secondrow while Anthony Jelonch is preferred to Dylan Cretin in the backrow.

Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg both line out for Scotland against France on Friday night. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty
Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg both line out for Scotland against France on Friday night. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty

The final alteration also involves a positional switch, the peerless Gael Fickou moving to the wing in place of Teddy Thomas with Arthur Vincent partnering Virimi Vakatawa in the centre. Antoine Dupont’s exploits have largely commandeered the headlines but Fickou’s rugby IQ and talent has allowed him to produce some irresistible performances in the tournament.

It’s a compliment to the Scottish wings Duhan van der Merwe, another to excel in the Six Nations, and Darcy Graham that the French coach admitted making provision for their “athletic” qualities. Arthur Vincent is a talented young player who already looks comfortable in senior Test rugby and certainly won’t diminish France’s attacking brio.

The French are a little lighter in the pack in terms of grunt and weight in the absence of Willemse and Romain Taofifenua and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Scots went after them in the scrum. What the home pack does possess are players who are comfortable on the ball, in handling and passing with an eye for an offload, while in captain, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt, the French boast two supreme athletes.

A concern for the home side is the staccato nature of their performances during matches, capable of exquisite attacking rugby only to then switch off mentally and let opponents back into games. This has been a uniform weakness throughout the tournament, along with discipline issues and a periodically weak kicking game.

Wales and England in particular demonstrated that the French defence does leak tries. Scotland certainly have the courage and capacity to pursue those opportunities and any continuing mental lapses may cost the home side a shot at the title.

France need to be sharp, focused, disciplined and hard nosed, to play the game as they can in attack and concentrate better in defence if they are to successfully crunch the numbers and claim the Six Nations title. If they don’t then Scotland are in with an excellent chance of breaking that Parisian hoodoo. Either way it promises to be an absorbing, entertaining contest.

France: B Dulin; D Penaud, V Vakatawa, A Vincent, G Fickou; R Ntamack, A Dupont; C Baille, J Marchand, M Haouas; B Le Roux, S Rebbadj; A Jelonch, C Ollivon (capt), G Alldritt. Replacements: C Chat, J-B Gros, U Atonio, R Taofifenua, D Cretin, B Serin, A Bouthier, T Thomas.

Scotland: S Hogg (capt); D Graham, C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; F Russell, A Price; R Sutherland, G Turner, Z Fagerson; S Skinner, G Gilchrist; J Ritchie, H Watson, N Haining. Replacements: D Cherry, O Kebble, S Berghan, A Craig, R Wilson, S Steele, A Hastings, H Jones.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

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