Sure in a perfect world and all the controversy aside we should now be dissecting the ramifications of what has been one of the most enthralling Six Nations Championships we can remember in a long time. However, before we do that there is still the unfinished business of France and Scotland’s postponed Round 3 match on Friday night to deal with. Forget all the finger pointing, which is all ancient history now and France’s waffle eating negligence which got us here in the first place, as both Scotland and France will be 100% focused on the business at hand on Friday night and as fans so should we. After France pipped Wales at the death 32-30 and out of a Grand Slam last Saturday in Paris, we are now treated to one last glorious roll of the dice in the French capital to see whether the silverware will remain at the Stade de France or make it’s way to Cardiff once referee Wayne Barnes blows his final whistle.
Last weekend’s Super Saturday was vintage stuff, and will be remembered as one to savour. Scotland came blasting out of the blocks to resurrect their campaign by blitzing Italy and now face the tantalising prospect of finishing second if they manage to beat France and the numbers punched into calculators work in their favor. Ireland demolished an English side that is clearly in need of a new chassis and aggressive tune up in a thrilling match in Dublin. But the showpiece event without a doubt was 80 minutes of classic Test rugby in Paris as France and Wales fought tooth and nail. It was tense, hugely physical and had more drama than a full season of The Sopranos. There was some exquisite rugby on display from both sides and the hits could have registered on a Richter Scale. The seven try, 62 point fest was one that will be talked about for many years to come as two perfectly matched sides gave no quarter for the full eighty minutes from end to end. Your heart has to go out to the Welsh and their outstanding effort, but we always felt that a Grand Slam was just not on the cards for anyone this year as tantalisingly close as Wales came to achieving it. However, as a result we get to have one last indulgence in a tournament that despite the COVID 19 pandemic has exceeded our wildest expectations in terms of entertainment and excitement.
France vs Scotland – Friday, March 26th – Paris
Let’s put aside the finger pointing in the run up to this match, and the French squad’s faux pas surrounding COVID 19 protocols. It’s not perfect and while the seeming lack of repercussions has riled some of us, what’s done is done. Scotland and France both had a break from the momentum of Six Nations Test Rugby and it cost them both dearly. France in their loss to England and Scotland in their defeat by Ireland. Agreed Scotland didn’t ask for it and would appear the more hard done by, but unlike France before they headed into the break they had already lost to Wales so things weren’t exactly going to plan after that historic Round 1 defeat of England at Twickenham. A trip to Paris may well have been a bridge too far too soon at that point. Now after recovering their mojo against Italy in a relatively easy training run, you’d have to argue they go into this match looking the fresher of the two sides after only a six day turnaround. The maths are pretty complicated for Scotland to get second place and their highest ever Six Nations finish, but in short it involves beating France, and then it’s down to the calculators. They either have to score four tries against the French or beat the French by five points and deny them a try or losing bonus point and let’s face it the likelihood of France NOT scoring a try is akin to making a convincing argument for the flat earth campaign.
France had to play out of their skins against Wales last Saturday in a game from which the physical toll will be hard to get over in the space of just six days. That being said, there is no denying the momentum that kind of victory can give you and Scotland are going to have to be at their very best to stop the French juggernaut on a ground that the boys from North of Hadrian’s wall haven’t won on since 1999. France need to beat Scotland by 21 points and score four tries, or 20 points and six tries to win the title off Wales. In addition to those basics there is also some maths to do, but essentially without either of those two conditions as a starting point then the Championship will belong to Wales. Despite all the accounting and number punching to do, there is the fact that Friday’s match has everything to play for for both sides. In short, a battle royale for very different reasons awaits us in Paris.
A time to focus on what really matters
French Coach Fabien Galthie has come under some serious criticism of late. Firstly due to his breaking of COVID 19 protocols which ultimately led to the postponement of this fixture, and secondly his inflammatory remarks accusing Wales of milking red card opportunities with referees. Poor on both counts, and now that he has had some time to reflect he no doubt wishes that he’d done neither. More importantly he wishes that the media would get back to focusing on what he and his charges do best – play some rather brilliant rugby. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for France these last few weeks, and it’s almost inevitable that things may get said in the heat of the moment that shouldn’t. Galthie and his coaching staff are an exceptionally talented group well liked and respected by their players. Much of what has been said and done over the last few weeks are rather uncharacteristic and no doubt brought on to some degree by the pressure the group has been under. We’re not making excuses for any of it but think that it’s time to move away from the media circus and get back to judging Galthie and his charges by their actions on the pitch – and let’s be honest in that respect they have given us something to celebrate this Championship.
Life really is all about how you cope with Plan B
Scotland it seems are constantly having to reinvent themselves, whether it’s due to the injury gods depleting their ranks, cancelled fixtures, seemingly inexplicable refereeing decisions – the list goes on. In short, Scotland can never run out onto the pitch thinking that the next 80 minutes will go according to whatever dress rehearsals they’ve gone through. Saturday’s encounter in Paris will be no different, and Captain Stuart Hogg will once again find his leadership and resolve tested to the max. We’d argue he’s developed into the kind of unflappable talisman and leader of men Scotland need, while Coach Gregor Townsend is more than capable of hiding a few tricks up his sleeve that will only see the light of day once referee Wayne Barnes blows the opening whistle. Two of Test Rugby’s shrewdest and wiliest characters will take on the brains trust that is French rugby and as a result it is now Scotland rather than France who beg the question – “which Scottish team will turn up”? They may be underdogs but they are probably the world’s most dangerous team carrying such a tag right now.
It’s all in the throw
Scotland need their starting Hooker George Turner to find his targets on Friday night in Paris, something he singularly failed to do at Murrayfield against Ireland in Round 4. Dave Cherry looked much more comfortable a week later against Italy when assigned the job of throwing darts and was also no stranger to the try line. Ireland has plenty of lineout poachers, which made Turner’s job especially difficult, something Cherry didn’t really have to contend with against Italy. Fortunately, France aren’t exactly leading the statistics in lineout steals, so provided Turner can improve his accuracy Scotland should improve their showing here. Cherry’s try scoring antics against Italy are unlikely to come into play against France and a distinctly more robust defence, so it’s really up to Turner to put in the kind of performance that turned heads against England and make Scotland competitive in the set pieces against a very formidable French pack.
One is without game time and the other has a worrying lack of consistency even with game time. Both however, are absolute geniuses and a joy to watch. France’s Romain Ntamack made his return off the bench to duty in the French fly half jersey last weekend against Wales. Considering that it was his first crack at Six Nations action for quite some time after injury we thought he put in a pretty good shift, especially in the final ten minutes when he really hit his straps. He was instrumental in setting up France’s match winning try, and now he has his Test legs again the battle between him and Scotland’s impish wizard Finn Russell will be well worth the price of admission. The big question mark hanging over Finn Russell is his consistency and propensity to throw a game after attempting the impossible, as daring and clever as it may be. On the one hand Scotland need Russell to throw caution to the wind, but on the other somehow need to manage when he does it, as he himself is not always the best at judging the moment. Key for Scotland on Friday will be to “manage the game manager” without stifling his creativity. The interplay between himself and back line magician Captain Stuart Hogg will be critical.
Tied at one apiece
There were some furrowed brows this morning when the team sheets came out and Scotland’s Chris Harris got the starting berth at outside centre over Huw Jones who lit up the pitch at Murrayfield against Italy. However, on the two occasions that Chris Harris has come up against France’s Virimi Vakatawa in the past year, Scotland won and lost one. In last year’s Six Nations encounter at Murrayfield Harris provided some gritty defence when needed, a quality that Huw Jones despite his brilliance on attack has not really shown much of. Six months later in the Autumn Nations Cup it was a very different story and France’s Fijian ran rings around Harris all afternoon. Still Harris has at times shown that while he rarely shines on attack, when some forceful and physical defence is needed, which it certainly will be on Friday night, he’s a bit more of a reliable commodity than Huw Jones. If he and fellow centre Sam Johnson can withstand the initial French onslaught by Vakatawa and Arthur Vincent, then that should allow Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend the freedom to bring on Jones to step up the attack against a tiring French duo in the last quarter of the match. It’s a gamble but it might just pay off.
There’s no silverware on the table for Scotland, but pride and perhaps revenge for a perceived slight by France in causing the Scots to lose their momentum halfway through the tournament, will mean that Scotland will have a point to prove and a score to settle in Paris on Friday night. Their highest finish in the tournament since it became the Six Nations in 2000, is surely motivation enough for a talented and feisty Scottish side who have shown that they can handle the pressure on the road and in big venues like Twickenham. Paris is not a happy hunting ground for them but then neither was Twickenham.
However, France are not a dysfunctional England and are literally buzzing with confidence and a hunger for silverware. France want to lay down markers to the world at large that they will be the team to beat in 2023, and an emphatic win over Scotland on Friday night and with it the Six Nations crown will be a pretty convincing argument in their favor. As fired up as Scotland will be, our heads are telling us that it will be France emerging victorious but just short of the points required to claim the Championship. Our hearts are hoping for a Scottish performance that produces another match that goes down to the wire. Ultimately though even with a French win, we have hunch that the Six Nations trophy may be finding itself on a late night flight to Cardiff on Friday.
We’ll be doing our wrap up of the tournament next week, and then turning our attention to the European Champions Cup Finals and Toronto’s campaign in Major League Rugby. After that it’s the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa and other summer internationals to look forward to, COVID 19 permitting. Hopefully by the time we get to November, COVID will be a distant memory and it will be back to business as usual for some tantalising Autumn Internationals that are starting to come together.
Enjoy Friday and here’s hoping for a fitting end to what has been a great Championship!
In the meantime we’ll leave you with the Mighty Squidge’s video analysis of the France/Wales match. Enjoy and get behind his excellent work!