Weakened Scotland bidding to expose self-belief of unpredictable France
Townsend’s team in with a decent shout of pulling off a first victory in Paris since 1999
Scotland’s Pete Horne: “He’ll know everything about the French – what they’ve been doing, their individual players.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Having failed to win in Paris so far this century, Scotland will attempt to end that trend on Saturday with something akin to a second-string side. Of the team’s key quartet, only the captain, Greig Laidlaw, is in the squad, Finn Russell having joined Stuart Hogg and Willem Nel on the injury list this week.
Factor in other absentees such as Huw Jones, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson, and it may seem that this game is France’s to lose. But that also appeared to be the case at half-time in their last home game, before they went on to surrender a 16-0 lead to Wales.
Given such an ignominious collapse was followed by a heavy defeat at Twickenham, it is evident self-belief is in short supply in the French ranks, as Jacques Brunel implied when asked if, by naming his team two days early, he were not giving the Scots an advantage.
“After seeing our performance against England, Scotland must be pretty confident anyway,” the head coach said.
“Pretty confident” would be overstating the mood in the visitors’ camp ahead of this third Six Nations outing of the season, but there is a belief that, if they can avoid the handful of glaring errors that cost them heavily against Ireland and the late lapse that marred an otherwise comfortable win over Italy, they are in with a decent shout of pulling off a first victory in the French capital since 1999.
The Scottish players are braced for an early onslaught from France, and think if they can withstand that they will be able to put in a more composed performance.
Should that materialise the chief orchestrator will be stand-off Peter Horne, who deputised so ably for Russell in this fixture at Murrayfield in 2016, and has been chosen in preference to Adam Hastings.
Like his opposite number Romain Ntamack, Horne can switch between 10 and 12. Gregor Townsend, formerly his coach at Glasgow Warriors, has long been an admirer of his meticulous approach to the game.
“He’s shown everyone he can play very well at 10 at international level,” the Scotland coach said. “He’s probably our most organised and best prepared player in the squad. He’ll know everything about the French – what they’ve been doing, their individual players. He’ll be able to talk through our game plan in minute detail.”
Horne’s better recent form may have given him the nod over Hastings in any case, but his greater dependability and experience sealed the debate given Townsend’s choice of the relatively untried Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg at centre.
Johnson has looked entirely at home at this level in his two caps to date, while the diminutive Grigg, who has six, is set for a compelling catchweight contest with Mathieu Bastareaud, his opposite number.
Like Grigg, substitute Darcy Graham is a small man who packs a big punch, and although nominally a winger or full-back, he has proved effective at club level by coming into midfield and acting as first receiver, particularly late in the game against tiring defences.
It would, therefore, be no great surprise if Graham were to come off the bench in the final quarter and quickly score, although whether the contest is still undecided at that time is another matter.
Townsend is aware of how dangerous France can be at their best, and believes that the new half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Ntamack can be just as great a threat as the more seasoned duo they replaced, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez.
“You go from cohesion with half-backs who have real experience in Parra and Lopez, to then going for cohesion with Toulouse half-backs, so they are very logical selections based on form,” he said.
“When Dupont came on against England he showed his spirit and his ability when the team was losing. He tried to take the game to the opposition, and that’s what you want in your players – he’s such an exciting talent.
“Ntamack is playing with a team, Toulouse, that’s playing really exciting rugby. So they’re as much of a danger as playing against experienced half-backs.
“It’s a dangerous French side, with some young players coming through very quickly, and with some experience right through the spine. I think their pack is more mobile than the pack they picked against Wales, but I don’t think they’ll change the way they play, which is high off-loads, ambitious rugby. We’re expecting a really dangerous attacking team.”
Brunel probably does not know what to expect, but he does know what he hopes to see. “We have to turn things around and show the real face of the France team.”
In reality, no one face of the French team, the inept or the inspired, is any more “real” than the other. But which one predominates will surely determine the outcome of the most unpredictable fixture so far in this year’s Championship.