France v Scotland preview: set-piece battle could be key to success

The hosts will field a lightweight front five which the visitors must target as they seek first win in Paris this millennium

Virimi Vakatawa will be a major threat for France versus Scotland tonight. Image: © Craig Watson -
Virimi Vakatawa will be a major threat for France versus Scotland tonight. Image: © Craig Watson -

YES, admittedly, the integrity of the Six Nations has been compromised as France know exactly what they need to do to leapfrog Wales in the table but it is difficult to get exercised. In another year that could happen in the final game regardless and if France have a benefit in knowing what they must do, so too Scotland benefit from knowing what they must prevent.

And in a season blighted by Covid can’t we just be grateful that the Championship took place at all, with just one game rearranged.

The two teams mirror each other in some respects with both countries welcoming back totemic fly-halfs for the final dance at the Six Nations ball tonight in Paris; the question remains whether Finn Russell or Romain Ntamack will be grinning/gurning at the pitch side cameras come no side?

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Both teams have scored 15 tries and both teams have conceded seven which suggests that there isn’t too much between them.

Both coaches have selected with defence at the forefront of their thinking. Despite Huw Jones’ heroics in the last two games, the outside centre drops to the bench almost certainly because Gregor Townsend does not want to put him in Virimi Vakatawa’s firing line … at least not for the full 80 minutes. Interestingly Vakatawa has missed four tackles this season at least suggesting that a fresh Jones may trouble the tiring Frenchmen late in the game.

For France, Fabien Galthie has dropped the attacking marvel that is Teddy Thomas and shunted Gael Fickou to the wing. Fickou is one of France’s defensive leaders and when asked why he was moved to the wider channel, Galthie specifically mentioned the attacking threat posed by “des joueurs tres athletique”, for which read 105kgs of Duhan van der Merwe. Oddly, as things stand, the flying Saffa will go up against Damian Penaud unless Fickou wears 11 but pops up on the right wing to mark Scotland’s danger man?

Whoever ends up keeping tabs on van der Merwe will also attempt to exploit the South African’s habit of going AWOL in defence.


France are building for RWC’23, that much we know, and their first Championship win for 11 years would be an important step on the way, especially after the Welsh forwards held the whip hand for much of last weekend’s game. Being bested by the ageing Welsh pack is a bad sign for any side but calamitous for a squad with pretensions to winning the big one.

With Paul Willemse banned for eye contact in the Wales game, Galthie has taken the surprising decision of dropping his other big beast of a lock Romain Taofifénua in favour of Swan Rebbadj who is more a tall, slim, athletic type of player but without the same impact in the close quarter exchanges.

This is important because shorn of their two biggest locks (Taofifénua and Willemse), France’s set scrum, which has creaked worryingly already in this campaign, will come under renewed scrutiny from Scotland. France’s loose-head Cyril Baille especially will be asked questions by Zander Fagerson.

The young Scot tends to concede a few too many penalties for my liking but when the mood takes him Fagerson can be an awesomely destructive tigh-thead and Baille is better known for his athletic prowess around the field rather than his set-piece scrummaging. Without the bulk of  Taofifénua/Willemse behind him Baille looks isolated and more than a little vulnerable. Scotland need to get a toe hold in the game somewhere and the set scrum looks like the most promising opportunity.

If you think this is speculation you are right, but the speculation is backed up by some weighty statistics. Taofifénua and Willemse both tip the scales at 135 kgs (give or take the odd bag of sugar) while Bernard Le Roux and Rabbadj are both approximately 115 kgs so this French pack is missing around 40kgs (about six stone in old money) of muscle mass.

Incidentally, Willemse was also France’s leading tackler in this championship with 70 to his name, six more than flanker/captain Charles Ollivon, which is good going for a big lump.

And France are a little like England in at least one respect … take away their set-piece and it’s akin to sticking a silver sword in a vampire’s heart. If they lose the scrum battle it is not obvious that France will continue to scrap for everything elsewhere.

Should their set scrum drop anchor then France remain clear favourites if only thanks to Scotland’s woeful record in Paris without a win this millennium.

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This French squad is dangerous not because they can play either tight or loose rugby, although they can, but because they can transition from one mindset to the other quicker than anyone else, not just from defence to attack but also from one-out runners to moving the ball at pace to exploit an opportunity elsewhere.

So, inside their own half the Scots will be expecting big forward runners but if there is a mismatch, a dog leg or space out wide, France’s halfback partnership can recognise as much and take the space so quickly the opposition scramble is often clutching at shadows.

Three of the four top offloaders are French so the Scots will be looking to wrap up the ball in the tackle wherever possible.

The cards are stacked in France’s favour, they have game breakers across the squad, home advantage and the best player in world rugby in Antoine Dupont, but they are also missing a huge amount of muscle in their not-so-tight five.

If Scotland can exploit that literal weakness, especially in the set scrum, Townsend’s team could undermine the always fragile French psyche and finish with a rare flourish.

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About Iain Morrison 151 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.


  1. Good observations. Willemse in particalar has given them a physical presence like the great “tractors” Palmie and Imbernon of the 1970s hitting rucks, big carries, dominant tackles, big scrum, and I agree their props are not the great technnicians we have come to expect from France. As a result don’t think we will be bullied. The more we can disrupt up front in the first half, the more chance we have.
    Expecting a cracker.

  2. They are fair game for us…what we need to is to be THE biggest nuisance in the first half by disrupting and frustrating them. Watson and Ritchie need to be at their very best. In the Scrummage we need to ensure we force them into bad positions. When we do get the ball lets ensure we put it into their half and give them no room.

    2nd half we need to get in their face offensively and push the limits of what their legs and lung power can withstand. We have the fitness and the bench to do so.

  3. “Lightweight”?…
    40 kgs…
    Not really from my point of view in the modern game.
    It is more about athletism.
    We’ll see that tonight.
    Good luck to Scotland

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