IRELAND v FRANCE @ STADE DE FRANCE, SATURDAY 23RD FEBRUARY 2019.
Kick-off 3.15pm CET/2.15pm GMT. Live on BBC (UK), FR2 (France), Virgin Media (Ireland), DMAX (Italy), NBC (USA)
France: Thomas Ramos; Damian Penaud, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gaël Fickou, Yoann Huget; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado©, Demba Bamba, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Félix Lambey, Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles. Substitutes: Camille Chat, Etienne Falgoux, Dorian Aldegheri, Paul Willemse, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Belleau, Maxime Médard.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn; Tommy Seymour, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Sean Maitland; Pete Horne, Greig Laidlaw©; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Josh Strauss. Substitutes: Fraser Brown, Alex Allan, Zander Fagerson, Ben Toolis, Gary Graham, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Darcy Graham.
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
BOTH head coaches have made significant changes to their starting XV for very different reasons, with France’s Jacques Brunel desperately trying to inject some team-spirit and belief into his flailing squad after demoralising defeats to Wales [surrendering a 16-point half-time lead] and England [by the biggest margin since 1911] in the opening two rounds of this Six Nations campaign, while the four changes Gregor Townsend has made to the Scotland line-up have been enforced by a horrendous, and seemingly insatiable, run of bad luck with injuries.
The experienced Clermont half-back duo of Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra have dropped out of the French team in the wake of some pointed comments in the media directed towards Brunel’s coaching regime, with Toulouse youngsters Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont taking their place. The embattled veteran coach insisted that the selection was ‘a sporting choice’ based on form, rather than a tactic aimed at quelling dissent and a re-asserting his authority. It is probably a bit of both.
Brunel has also rethought his disastrous experiment of playing two centres on the wing and winger at full-back against England. Yoann Huget shifts from 15 to 11, with Thomas Ramos coming in at the back; Gael Fickou tis restored in midfield with Geoffrey Doumayrou dropping out. All of which means that outside-centre Mathieu Bastareaud and right-wing Damian Penaud are the only two members of the back division against England retained the in the position they started two weeks ago. The only change in the starting pack is the re-introduction of Wenceslas Lauret at six.
France have been shambolic during this Six Nations, highlighted by second-row second-row Sébastien Vahaamahina admitting after the Wales match that he had not been aware that he had taken over the captaincy of the side during the second half against Wales until referee Wayne Barnes informed him.
If French disorganisation and lack of urgency is an easy stereo-type, it also has a ring of truth. As does the idea that they are at the most dangerous when they have been written, and that they thrive on a deconstructed game, all of which makes the approach Scotland take into this match even more fascinating than usual. The visitors believe that their superior pace and fitness will give them an edge over the full 80-minutes, and are also understandably reluctant to get embroiled in an arm-wrestle, but they need to avoid handing France any opportunity to punish them in broken play, so accuracy is of paramount importance.
The four changes Townsend has made to the team are Blair Kinghorn replacing Stuart Hogg (shoulder injury) at full-back, Nick Grigg replacing Huw Jones (knee injury) at outside-centre, Nick Grigg replacing Finn Russell (head knock) at stand-off and Magnus Bradbury replacing Ryan Wilson (ankle injury) at blind-side flanker.
The loss of Hogg and Russell have been. particularly bitter pills to swallow, partly because of how valuable players they are to the national cause, and partly because of the nature of their injuries. The former was taken out by a late challenge from Ireland flanker Pater O’Mahony, the latter was concussed playing club rugby in France for Racing 92 against Toulouse last Sunday.
But that’s modern rugby, and Townsend has always been a champion of seeing very unavailability as an opportunity for someone else to make an impression.
The return from injury of Zander Fagerson adds some oomph to the bench, as does the selection of Ali Price, Adam Hastings and Darcy Graham as the back replacements, and Townsend will be hoping that can be key in the final quarter.
Scotland last won in Paris in 1999, and have only won there twice since Jim Teller scored the decisive try in 1969. This is a golden opportunity to improve that dismal strike-rate, but the bookmakers have the home team as 6/13 favourites (the away team are 9/4) for a reason.
WHAT THEY SAID
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw on his team’s dismal away record –
I feel we’re playing good enough rugby to win, yes I do, and I’ve pushed that point home this week. We’re sick of talking about having opportunities to win and being confident before games. It’s up to us now, as a group, as a collective, to take the step and win away from home. That’s it.
If we’ve got aspirations to go on and win [the championship] this is a very important game, clearly. We spoke a bit about that and we understand the magnitude of the game. I think that’s good for us to play in games like that as well and I’m really excited to play away from home tomorrow and see what we’re all about.
We’ve spoken about the likes of Wales coming away and winning here. Teams like that can produce it on the day, so it’s important for ourselves as a group to make sure we can deliver a winning performance away from home.
That’s what we’ve talked about all week. We were disappointed to lose at home last time out. I think it is important how we bounce back from that. The proof is in the pudding so we will find out tomorrow afternoon, but that’s what we’re all focused on.”
France coach Jacques Brunel on the suggestion that his decision to drop Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra could be related to their post match comments following the England debacle –
I’m telling you it’s not the case. Ask them, ask their team mates. Given our performance we needed to change things, it’s a sporting choice. We have to turn things around and show the real face of the France team,”
Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair on the intimidation factor of playing at Parc de France –
I don’t think the guys who haven’t been here before will be overawed by it. They’ll see the sun shining, recognise the fact it’s a beautiful pitch and a great place to go and play some rugby. They’ll be desperate to show what they can do with a fast pitch.
I don’t think there is a fear there. Our defence needs to be on its toes. We can’t allow them to get into the game, or allow the fans to get into the game.
If we can manage that it will be a tough afternoon for them, if we don’t then they will enjoy themselves.”
France second-row Felix Lambey on the importance of righting a few wrongs this weekend –
There is anger, a desire to react, there is a lot of rage in everyone. Everyone is really hurt, we want to show a different face and win.
THREE KEY CLASHES
Mathieu Bastareaud v Nick Grigg
The Scottish centre is only 11cm shorter than his French opposite number, but is almost five stone lighter, which doesn’t seem like a fair contest. But Grigg is the sort of character who revels in making bigger men look silly. He runs clever lines, and he does so fast and hard, which could make life very difficult for Bastareaud, whose acceleration and agility is inevitably effected by his huge bulk.
A big question is how Grigg will cope in defence if he ends up in a one-on-one with Bastareaud. He certainly won’t shirk the challenge but will his trademark chop-tackle be enough to topple the French giant in full gallop.
“They’re two very strong players,” said Townsend when naming his team on Thursday. “Obviously, Bastareaud’s strength is a bit more aligned to his weight, whereas Nick’s strength is really about that power he shows to bounce off tackles, to really put his shoulder into tackles and drive people through. It shows that rugby’s a game for all sizes.
Romain Ntamack v Peter Horne
The Frenchman will only turn 20 in May and gets his second start after lining up in the centre against Wales. While he plays the majority of his club rugby at 12, he came through the ranks as a fly-half and his performances for France in their U20 World Championship winning campaign last summer justifies Brunel’s faith in him.
This will be only the second time that Dupont and Ntamack have started together at half-back, with the other time coming in the Challenge Cup for Toulouse against Sale last January.
Horne is also more used to wearing the No.12 jersey, and it is a worrying omen that his only two starts at 10 in Scotland colours coincide with two notable low points for the team when they lost to Italy in the spring of 2015 and Fiji during the summer of 2017.
There is no doubt that he is a very capable and diligent player, but organisational skills should not completely obscure the love adventure he shares with the man he is replacing. In fact, if there is one concern about Horne, it is that he has had a tendency to push his luck in the past and paid a heavy price (for example, that first Scotland start at stand-off against Italy in 2015 when he tried to kick the leather off the ball with a late penalty clearance late in the match and ended up missing touch to gift Italy the possession from which they secured a rare victory on the road, and the interception he gifted Jacob Stockdale in Dublin last year).
In a game which has the potential to be as fast and loose as we will witness in the championship this year, it could come down to which stand-off manages the risk most effectively.
Wenceslas Lauret v Magnus Bradbury
Bradbury played himself into the starting XV with a towering performance for Edinburgh last weekend in his first match back since dislocating his shoulder four months earlier A lack of bulk and dynamism has been a big sticking point for Scotland in recent seasons, so a lot is expected of the 23-year-old from Oban. But the combative Lauret will be determined to make sure he also makes his mark on his return to the team after missing the England debacle.
SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST FRANCE
SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST FRANCE
Played 92 – Won 36 – Drawn 3 – Lost 53
20 January 1912: Scotland 31 France 3
25 October 2003: Scotland 9 France 51
Six most recent matches
16 March 2013: France 23 Scotland 16
8 March 2014: Scotland 17 France 19
7 February 2015: France 15 Scotland 8
5 September 2015: France 19 Scotland 16
13 March 2016: Scotland 29 France 18
12 February 2017: France 22 Scotland 16
11 February 2018: Scotland 32 France 26
LAST TIME OUT
YOU don’t give teams of France’s quality a 10-point lead if you’re going to have a chance of winning the game. Well, not very often anyway.
The reason why Scotland won this one was not only because the French were never able to emulate that explosive start, but also because the Scots themselves arm-wrestled their way back into contention, steadily exerting more and more control on proceedings against opponents who were increasingly unable to think on their feet the longer the game went on. For all that France were the better team in the first half and remained dangerous for almost all of the second, it was therefore a deserved win for Gregor Townsend’s team, and indeed for the coach himself, who was bold enough to take off Finn Russell in the closing stages and move Greig Laidlaw to stand-off when Ali Price came off the bench.
If one man deserves most credit for the win, however, it has to be Laidlaw himself. The former captain converted both Scotland’s tries, scored by Sean Maitland and Huw Jones, and added six penalties for a personal tally of 22 points and a 100 per cent record with the boot.
Having said that, the team as a whole displayed serious strength of character to recover from such a dispiriting start. Grant Gilchrist had arguably his best Test performance alongside Jonny Gray in the second-row, Simon Berghan was impressive too on his return at tighthead, and Hamish Watson was as lively as ever in attack.
The contribution of those three and the rest of the pack helped restrict the amount of front-foot ball at France’s disposal, while the backs also defended with increasing tenacity as the game went on.
Teddy Thomas opened the scoring for France in the opening minutes by slipping all too easily past a feeble attempt at a tackle from Russell, evading Peter Horne, then gliding inside Stuart Hogg to touch down behind the posts. Maxime Machenaud converted, then added another three points in the 10th minute after John Barclay had been penalised, and Scotland had still not had anything amounting to a half-decent attack.
That changed a couple of minutes later, however, when Hogg kicked through to deep inside the French 22, forcing Thomas to come across to cover and escort the ball into touch. Scotland’s lineout drive was halted, but Gray and Gilchrist helped spread the ball left, where Russell was well positioned to give the scoring pass to Maitland. Laidlaw converted, and we had a match on our hands again.
Thomas grabbed his second try after 26 minutes. The winger’s chip over the top left Maitland stranded, and although Laidlaw was back to cover, the bounce evaded the scrum-half. That allowed Thomas just to keep on running, pick it up and again touch down to leave Machenaud a simple task with the conversion.
Down by 10 again, Scotland needed to respond quickly, and they did so with a superb score by Jones. A Hogg counter-attack began the move, and Berghan drove on. As Laidlaw gathered at the base of the ruck, Jones came in on excellent line, and the French defence could do nothing to stop him as he cut back at speed against the grain. Laidlaw converted to take Scotland back to within three points, but another Machenaud penalty for a lineout offence stretched France’s advantage back to six with the last kick of the half.
Scotland began the second half far more purposefully, and a barging run culminated in their being awarded a penalty, which Laidlaw stroked over from 25 metres. Within two minutes, replacement French scrum-half Baptiste Serin replied with another three-pointer, this time given for crossing after Ryan Wilson got in the way of the defence as Hogg embarked on a wide run.
France soon offended again, allowing Laidlaw to close the gap back to three, but after that they began to dominate territorially, and Serin was on target with another penalty after 56 minutes. Even so, after putting in such a flawed performance, Scotland were still just six points down with the final quarter to come – and when Laidlaw reduced the deficit to three, the feeling grew that the match could still be won.
It became all the stronger after 64 minutes when Laidlaw scored with a scrum penalty, drawing Scotland level for the first time since the start of the match. Russell, who had had an indifferent game, was then taken off in a bold move, designed to give the home team more control at a time when French resolve was faltering.
It soon began to pay off as France were pressed back deep inside their own half. With 11 minutes left, their defence strayed offside, and Laidlaw yet again made no mistake: 29-26.
France still had a lot of fight in them, but were increasingly error-prone, and continued to give away penalties. Four minutes from time, they killed the ball at the ruck and Laidlaw kept up his 100 per cent record: 32-26.
Inside the final two minutes, a long penalty to touch set up an excellent lineout platform for France to attack from, but their maul was held up, giving Scotland the put-in at the scrum. The ball emerged, and they were still trying to run their way out of their 22 when France again offended, allowing Scotland to send the ball out to end the game and claim a morale-boosting win.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Subs: S Lawson, J Bhatti, J Welsh, B Toolis, D Denton, A Price, C Harris, B Kinghorn.
France: G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, G Doumayrou, V Vakatawa; L Beauxis, M Machenaud; J Poirot, G Guirado, R Slimani, A Itturia, S Vahaamahina, W Lauret, Y Camara, M Tauleigne. Substitutes: A Pelissie, E Ben Arous, C Gomes Sa, P Gabrillagues, L Picamoles, B Serin, A Belleau, B Fall.
Scotland: Tries: Maitland, Jones. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pens: Laidlaw 6.
France: Tries: Thomas 2. Cons: Machenaud 2. Pens : Machenaud 2, Serin 2.
Scoring sequence (France first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-10; 5-10; 7-10; 7-15; 7-17; 12-17; 14-17; 14-20 (h-t) 17-20; 17-23; 20-23; 20-26; 23-26; 26-26; 29-26; 32-26.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).