GREGOR TOWNSEND believes that Scotland’s Six Nations form during the last two seasons has demonstrated that his team can now be competitive against the top sides in the world, and he will instruct his players to “fight fire with fire” in order to kill off France’s title challenge if Paris on Friday night.
Scotland must beat France by five points and also equal the number of bonus-points secured by their opponents in order to finish second in the table, which would be a high-water mark in the Six Nations era. It is a massive challenge against an in-form French team who are looking to win by 21 points and score four tries in order to finish top of the table for the first time since 2010.
The odds are stacked against Townsend’s team. Last week’s dramatic victory over Wales lifted France to third in the world rankings, while Scotland currently languish ninth. The bookies are giving Scotland a 16-point start at a venue they have not won at since 1999. However, the coach insists that his team are not there to simply make up the numbers.
“Fight fire with fire, I think that’s what we have to do, whether that’s a physical battle or a game that gets the ball moving,” he said. “If you move the ball more, you are going to create more chances, but also there is more chances of making errors, so if France are moving the ball, then we’ve got to make sure that we are forcing errors from them.
“And if they continue with what they have been doing which is a really patient game, we have to be smart as well. We’ll be happy either way they play. If it’s more kicking then we’ve got more decisions to make around counterattack and if it is moving the ball wide then we back our defence to force some errors.
“In their last two games, the opposition have really tested France with ball in hand,” he added. “England played some really good attacking rugby, Wales likewise and were 10 points up with 12 minutes to go, so it shows that teams can cause them problems, but then we also saw some of the tries they scored against England and Wales were outstanding.
“The fact that they won away from home against Ireland, who are a really good team, shows that they are a quality side. They’ve been very consistent for the past 12 months, and they’ve got all their players back available. When we were due to play them a few weeks ago, Virimi Vakatawa wasn’t available and maybe Bernard Le Roux was injured as well. Now they’ve got a lot of players back that perform at the highest level of the game, so that’s a situation you want to be in as the opposition – you want to be taking on the best players and seeing how you match up.”
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Scotland’s record in their two Six Nations campaigns since the 2019 World Cup flop is five wins and four losses, with none of those defeats by more than seven points (the average losing margin is 4.5 points). They might not have cracked it as a winning team yet, but there is no doubt that they have become more competitive across the board, and this gives Townsend belief that they can make a game of it tomorrow night.
“We obviously want to turn those narrow losses into wins, and we’re very disappointed not to have done that against Wales, and maybe our performance didn’t deserve that against Ireland, but the players know that they can stay in the fight and they can create opportunities to win games, so they should feel confident in their own ability,” he reasoned.
“But they do understand that this is a huge challenge. France with that target of having to get four tries and win by 21 points means that they might be playing their best rugby we’ve seen, so we’ve got to be up for that. Our challenge is to make sure that they get nowhere near that score.”
Townsend was keen to focus on the positives of Scotland getting five players released by English clubs for this match but did acknowledge that it is far from ideal that he did not have a free hand to select his best possible team, with Sean Maitland the most obvious absentee.
“Look, it’s much more satisfactory than I thought it was going to be on Saturday, when none of our players were going to be available and we were putting together a team of home-based players plus Finn Russell,” he reasoned. “So, yeah, it’s a much better situation than then. And I’m glad that we did get a resolution that players would be available. Not all of them, as you can probably tell, but most of them.
“The group feel really disappointed for those who couldn’t get selected this week, but like players who get injured, you move on with the group that’s here and that we’ll take out to France. We’ll work together to deliver our best rugby that we can.”
There is no doubt that Scottish Rugby found itself in a difficult position, and boycotting the game wasn’t really an option, but the fact that they put their name to the press release which was issued on Saturday night claiming that “an agreement has been reached with Premiership Rugby for the release of Scottish players” without explaining the true nature of the compromise, and then didn’t clarify the situation when they announced their training squad at lunchtime on Monday, has made them appear complicit in this shoddy pact.
We must assume that Scottish Rugby’s Chairman John Jeffrey, who is also the Chairman of the Six Nations Council, and Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson, who sits on the Six Nations Council, pushed hard for a more comprehensive deal but weren’t able to win the argument.