THE Scots know what is coming their way on Saturday afternoon; a barrage of kicks followed by a heady mix of power and panache that is the French calling card. They know what is coming but whether Scotland can resist any better than the All Blacks managed is another matter!
France have kicked over two kilometres thus far, Scotland just under. Saturday’s two teams have kicked more than anyone else in the tournament and the ploy has worked better for Les Blues than L’Ecosse.
Perhaps Gregor Townsend’s team have put boot to ball so often because of the appalling weather. The heavens opened during both of Scotland’s first two matches but, at least in Cardiff, the kicking almost certainly originated from tactical as well as practical considerations.
It looked like Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell targeted Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit, calculating correctly that they could kick longer and more accurately than the winger (LRZ has since been dropped).
On one level the tactic worked but on another it failed. Scotland won the kicking contest but they lost the wider war partly because every one of those kicks to LRZ came with an opportunity cost. What might have happened had the Scots kept possession and attacked with the ball in hand? A 20 yard gain with the boot does not inspire a team in the same way as a scything run from their skipper, even one that doesn’t finish in a score.
So Hogg has made fewer yards with the ball in hand in the opening two rounds of competition than Freddie Stewart (Eng), Liam Williams (Wal) and Hugo Keenan (Ire), which is surprising as he usually backs himself.
Hogg has not quite been his super confident self thus far but neither have a few other Scottish backs including Russell, but he isn’t miles off the pace and neither are Scotland. It is probably worth mentioning that the Scots could have lost the England game just as they could have won against Wales. The line between elation and despair is pretty thin.
Centre Chris Harris was copping some of the flack for Scotland’s lacklustre attack but he remains a key figure in a tight and cohesive defence that has conceded just two tries in 160 minutes of rugby. Until geneticists can graft Huw Jones’ attacking prowess onto Harris’ defensive excellence the Gloucester man will remain a key component in Scotland’s midfield as you fancy they will need all the defensive nous they can muster.
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With better weather forecast, Scotland will surely play a little more with ball in hand, not least because the French defence has already leaked four tries, one of which was a scrum-half sneak.
Scotland are a little light on ball carriers, especially in the pack. Rory Sutherland, Jamie Ritchie and Jonny Gray leave a big hole to fill, but at least Townsend has pushed Sam Skinner up into the row where he belongs, with Rory Darge getting the start he deserves at six. Scotland can’t compete with the French powerpack so why try?
It won’t be easy to get go-forward on Saturday against a motivated and muscular French defence that has been transformed by Shaun Edwards just as their conditioning has been shaken up by former Glasgow Warriors’ fitness guru Thibault Giroud; a fascinating character with an eclectic background in skiing, American Football, rugby, sprinting and Olympic bobsleigh.
At his behest, the French squad spent two gruelling weeks pre-season with the Foreign Legion and learned a little about resilience in the process.
It’s a learning that Scotland needs right now and especially their classy fly-half who remains central to the team’s success. And if Russell is to unveil the best of himself you have to think the forwards must somehow provide quick ball. It’s hard yakka, just ask Ireland. In the first half of their match against France, Ireland’s gainline success was just 43% (according to theanalyst.com) while France managed 69%. (Ireland improved after the break, France fell away).
There are ways to mitigate against Scotland’s lack of power: constantly change the point and the angle of attack, send units of two or three runners into the blue brick wall rather than individuals, take the space whenever and wherever it appears. And, finally, tell Duhan van der Merve to shake a bleeding leg.
The giant Saffa is due a good game but he won’t find it if he remains glued to his left wing. Imagine the damage he could do popping up where the opposition least expect it.
Van der Merwe is much more physical than one of his immediate predecessors, Tim Visser, but the Dutchman had a nose for the try-line and was very much smarter with his reading of the game, regularly running the cheat line to take the scoring pass.
When France have the ball, line-speed is important and against giants likes of Uini Atonio, Paul Willemse and Gregory Alldritt, the chop tackle becomes the weapon of choice. Even Usain Bolt would struggle to get up to speed with George Turner clamped around his ankles.
Scotland must tackle low and pick their moments to contest the breakdown because all too often the jackler will simply be blown away by the big French ‘bouncers’.
There have already been 21 rips in the tackle thus far in the tournament and we should expect to see a few more on Saturday with the first Scottish defender using the chop tackle and the second targeting the ball with shoulder or arm.
Turnover ball is gold dust, especially for teams like Scotland that excel in broken field play.
And on the subject of tackles, Hamish Watson managed 17/17 against Wales which is only what we have come to expect. The little flanker has now completed an incredible 180 tackles on the bounce in the Six Nations, going all the way back to that crazy 38-38 draw at Twickenham in 2019, without a single miss.
This is heroic stuff, the stuff of legends, a current Championship record and one that will stand for a while you’d guess, especially once Watson has added a few more tackles to his tally against France. The diminutive flanker is a defensive colossus.
If everyone else works as hard as Watson on Saturday afternoon the home side won’t be far off the pace but if France really have transformed themselves from perennial flakes to World Cup favourites they should win by a minimum of 10 points.