Scotland v France: kicking contest key – but hosts need to find a way to cut loose

Time to unleash the ball handling and carrying threat of players such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Duhan van der Merwe

The attacking threat posed by Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell has not yet been fully unleashed during this Six Nations. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
The attacking threat posed by Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell has not yet been fully unleashed during this Six Nations. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

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.


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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.


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About Iain Morrison 80 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.

13 Comments

  1. VDM should be launched at the ball catcher, Edinburgh when Ritchie and Crosbie defending kicks were at their most effective. Jones has regressed but Bennett is a significant upgrade in attack and is he really that much of a lesser defender than Harris (Harris is a good solid citizen, but I do think hes been elevated to some sort of defensive wizard) Bennett looks like he’s getting back to his best

  2. Back during the AIs I read one professional pundit suggesting Scotland should vary their kicking to include low end over end unpredictable bouncers. Nothing impacts on the bum muscles more than a spinning drunken ball followed by some charging bodies intent on clobbering man & ball.

    • Agree, and there’s more currency for that kind of thing for rushing defences, which they tend to be nowadays.

      If you have them thinking twice then you’re controlling the game more.

  3. Am confident that Russell and Hogg can more than hold their own in a tactical kicking duel – and then some. But it is kicking for points that concerns me. What happens if Finn is absent from the field for whatever reason (cough)? Are we seriously relying on Kinghorn to go for goal? Great player though he is with ball in hand, that is what really worries me. I can’t think of another Six Nations coach who would flirt with such an unnecessary risk.

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  4. Van der Merwe might have been discouraged from shaking a leg, being told to sit on his wing and chase one of too many kicks. Maybe launching himself at the kick receiver would be an inspiring impact, as Steyn did for Glasgow last weekend.
    The weather looks less likely to be a factor on Saturday and that the entire 1st choice French XV (particularly the big lumps) would contract bat flu could still be reported, so my hopes have not yet died.
    We’ve not been great so far in this 6 Nations, managing to lose to a largely uninspiring Wales. If Dan Biggar stood out, that pretty much sums up the level we’re talking about. (I really don’t like Dan Biggar) We have weapons, but, in Gregor Townsend, we don’t seem to have a general who knows how to deploy them effectively. Remember the fallout with Russell and the drawn game of two halves at Twickenham? We have a formidable and exciting back three, but we don’t use them. Why? Is Kinghorn really more competent cover for Russell than Hastings? Computer says NO! What is our strategy at the breakdown? Darge might well show us a new approach, if he’s allowed to.
    On the whole, I’m happy enough with our starting XV, though I would appreciate it if Fagerson could limit his brainless penalties for once. Kebble might make an impact by falling on someone later in the match and it’ll be good to see Bennett back in a Scotland shirt, if circumstances give him a good run. I would have preferred Hastings and Steyn on the bench as more flexible and pragmatic cover, but there you go.
    We beat them in Paris last year and we can beat them at home, if we use our own weapons and don’t simply fear theirs.

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