TODAY’S home fixture against France is game two of four in Scotland’s Summer Series, but for some members of Gregor Townsend’s squad it could also be their last international outing of the year. That is the stark reality confronting the players this afternoon, and a factor which should ensure a sharper performance than we saw in last week’s 23-15 win over Italy.
True, new captain Finn Russell and the rest of the starting back division seem sure to be included in the final World Cup squad of 33, and a large majority of the starting pack will almost certainly go too. But, just days before Townsend all but finalises his reduction of the squad from its present size of 41, there are other members of the matchday 23 who cannot take anything for granted.
Ewan Ashman, for one, will make no presumptions. One of four hookers in the current squad along with today’s replacement Dave Cherry and last week’s duo of George Turner and Stuart McInally, the 23-year-old may be a fair bet to be one of the three who make it into the final squad, but has yet to make a conclusive case for his inclusion.
However, that does not mean he will be all out to impress as an individual this afternoon. He knows the pressure is on to perform, all right, but yesterday insisted it is important that no-one gets carried away by his own urge to impress to the detriment of the team performance.
“There’s not been too much crack about it,” said Ashman, who will be an Edinburgh player next season after agreeing a move from Sale Sharks back in April. “Everybody knows everybody wants to get on the plane. Everybody is more concerned with doing the best for the team.
“It’s easy to get distracted. I like to concentrate on the game, try and put the background noise to the side and just do the best I can on the pitch.”
This is a significantly stronger Scotland side than the one selected last week, and they go into the game as favourites against a French team who have a distinctly experimental look to them on their first outing of the summer. Whether the home side justify that status will be down in large part to Russell, and Ashman, for one, believes that the stand-off is a natural in the role – one who has already been a calming influence on his less experienced team-mates.
“Finn has always been a leader – I think he’s going to go great,” Ashman added. “He’s a natural. The way he sees the game is unlike anybody else. He’s chilled, really relaxed and takes it in his stride.
“He’s always been a leader and it’s been a natural transition into him being captain. I’m sure it will be good.
“He’s good for talking to other players and he caught up with me this week. He knows everybody’s role. His details are crazy. He talked me through that.
“I was in the sauna with him on Thursday night doing a bit of recovery and he was chatting away and we were talking through our roles. He’s a really good guy to speak to, as he sees the game like nobody else I have worked with.
“He always has something that I can pick his brains on. He’s really been good with the young lads and makes you feel you’re ready to play and calms you down. He’s a class act and has time for everybody.”
If Russell pulls the strings as only he can, Scotland should win today. But Ashman is convinced that France will still be tough opponents – ones who will provide an ideal challenge before Scotland’s upcoming World Cup pool games against South Africa and Ireland.
“France are an all-star team still. They’re going to be hugely physical and that should prepare us for Ireland and South Africa.
“They pride themselves on their maul and they’re a huge team just like South Africa, so it’s going to be a hugely challenging game. It’s the perfect opportunity to prepare for the World Cup.
“They’re a huge pack with a great set-piece. That’s where we’ve got to front up and take it to them rather than waiting for them to take it to us.
“We can 100 per cent go after them. There’s a huge belief in the squad. We’re going out to dominate them.”
Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell (captain), B White; P Schoeman, E Ashman, Z Fagerson, R Gray, G Gilchrist, M Fagerson, H Watson, J Dempsey. Substitutes: D Cherry, J Bhatti, W Nel, S Cummings, R Darge, G Horne, C Redpath, O Smith.
France: B Dulin (captain); L Bielle-Biarrey, E Gailleton, Y Moefana, E Dumortier; M Jalibert, B Couilloud; J Gros, P Bourgarit, D Bamba, C Woki, B Chalureau, P Boudehent, S Macalou, Y Tanga. Substitutes: P Mauvaka, R Wardi, S Falatea, P Willemse, D Cretin, B Serin, A Hastoy, A Vincent.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand).
Assistant referee 1: Frank Murphy (Ireland).
Assistant referee 2: Federico Vedovelli (Italy).
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).