1. A new-found relish for defence
Scotland talked a good game leading into last year’s World Cup about all the work they’d done on improving their defence over the months of summer training camps and warm-up Tests.
They walked the walk in their second and third group games in Japan, ‘nilling’ Samoa (34-0) and then Russia (61-0). Sadly, in their two biggest pool games, all-too familiar frailties resurfaced as Ireland and Japan both crossed the Scots’ line four times to condemn them to an early exit.
This was hardly a novel experience. It was the eighth and ninth occasions Scotland had conceded four or more tries in Gregor Townsend’s tenure as head coach. In last year’s Six Nations they conceded 17, only eclipsed by the 20 from 2005 in the tries-against column.
After seven years as the national team’s defence coach, Matt Taylor headed back to Australia after the World Cup with Welshman Steve Tandy joining Townsend’s team.
So far, so very good. Only one try conceded against both Ireland and England, and a complete shut-out against Italy. Scotland have the best defensive record in the Championship thus far.
“Steve’s got a different defence set-up and philosophy but everyone is buying in and working hard,” said prop WP Nel. “It was not a long transition for him to bring in what he wants to achieve. Everyone jumped on board, the boys are doing extra and it’s showing on the pitch.”
France, despite a discernible change in attitude under new defence guru Shaun Edwards, have conceded seven in their first three games, even if scoring 11 at the other end has moved them to within sight of a first Six Nations title in 10 years.
2. Have France really lifted their away-day Bleus?
France’s stirring 27-23 win in Cardiff in round three brought plenty of plaudits and was celebrated raucously by the players in the Principality Stadium changing rooms.
No wonder. It was the first time the French had tasted victory anywhere apart from Rome in the Championship since 2014, when they last won at Murrayfield.
That’s not quite Scotland standard (no away Championship wins apart from Italy since Dublin 2010), but it certainly attests to the old adage – as Nel alluded to this week – that “we know that any French team can be different when they are away from home.”
So, has France’s tendency for flakiness on their travels all changed in one game?
True, they have put three solid performances together in a row, something they haven’t done for a decade. But a cold-eyed look at the Cardiff encounter would tell you the French were gifted two tries by first a rare Leigh Halfpenny error under a high ball, and then an intercept pass from Nick Tompkins, just as Wales looked poised to take the lead after clawing back a 17-9 deficit to a point.
Of course intercept tries don’t happen by accident and a combination of homework and intelligence is required to make the sort of play Romain Ntamack made to turn the tide back France’s way.
But throw in a couple of refereeing decisions the Welsh were understandably aggrieved about and it was a match that could have gone either way.
No victory in Cardiff is to be sniffed at, anytime, but it was hardly the dominant display of force some commentators would have you believe.
3. Recent Murrayfield meetings
Scotland may “fancy themselves against anyone at home”, as No 8 Magnus Bradbury said last week, but they have lost their last three Six Nations matches at Murrayfield – against Ireland and Wales last year, and England last month.
Mercifully a good chunk of Townsend’s squad can locate happier memories of hosting France, having beaten Les Bleus on each of their last three visits to Edinburgh.
Duncan Taylor’s stunning individual try and Stuart Hogg’s brilliant overhead pass for Tim Visser’s score lit up a memorable highlights reel from their 2016 Championship meeting, a first win over the French for 10 years.
Two years ago, the pressure was on after an opening-day humbling in Cardiff, and cranked up another notch when the hosts trailed 10-0 early on and 20-14 at half-time.
But a performance full of defiance was rewarded as 22 points from the boot of Greig Laidlaw guided the Scots to a 32-26 victory which proved a launchpad to go on and equal their best-ever Six Nations finish in Townsend’s first campaign as head coach.
Last August also required a show of character when they tackled the French in a World Cup warm-up Test, a week after a 32-3 trouncing by the same opponents in Nice. Again they trailed early on and at the interval, but battled their way to a 17-14 victory with Chris Harris scoring the decisive try.
Only Gael Fickou of this new-look French squad has ever tasted success at Murrayfield, coming on as a late replacement when still a 19-year-old in their last victory in Edinburgh in 2014.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 27)
4. Breakdown bandits could hold the key
Scotland have won more turnovers in open play – 18 – than any other country in the Championship so far. The burgeoning partnership of flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie has had no little part in that, with the former restored to somewhere close to his best after injury cruelly curtailed his Wold Cup inside the first half of the opening game against Ireland.
“Hamish and Jamie are in great form at the moment; they are playing some of the best rugby I have seen them play in a long time,” noted Bradbury, who was the No 8 in the all-Edinburgh back-row trio against England and Italy, and who is on the bench this week. “We have got a couple of fetchers there and we all try to carry and tackle as much as we can. I think we complement each other well.”
France’s own back-row trio are no slouches, it has to be said. Captain Charles Ollivon has shone so far, two tries in their opening win against England and another against Italy making him the Championship’s joint-top try-scorer.
Scotland are already painfully familiar with No 8 Gregor Alldritt, the 22-year-old having scored three of his four Test tries to date against them, in Paris and Nice last year.
Blindside Francois Cros is less heralded, but the Toulouse flanker has also added substance to France’s new defensive rigour under Edwards, and proved a handy line-out thief too.
After France’s victory in Cardiff, Edwards said the hardest game for Wales in their Grand Slam campaign last year was at Murrayfield, when the visitors prevailed 18-11.
“It was an unbelievably tough game,” he remarked. “We are expecting a real battle again.”
As ever, the contest on the ground will be a key battle within that battle. And one where Scotland look reasonably well equipped to earn an advantage they will need if they are to eke out victory.
5. Sunday best for Scots… or a dismal dimanche?
A bit of a straw-clutcher perhaps, but we had to get to five somehow!
Scotland have only beaten France three times in 20 Championship matches in the Six Nations era. 2006, 2016, 2018. All of them at Murrayfield. All of them on a Sunday. As is this year’s fixture.
Quite why the Six Nations schedulers have deemed this one to be more suited to Sunday afternoon fare is a bit of a mystery, but since 2004 seven of the eight Scotland-France fixtures at Murrayfield have been played on the Sabbath.
Of course, France could argue they have won four out of those seven games. But given their overall supremacy in matches between the two countries, and the momentum they bring this time, Scotland will surely take any omen they can get.