France have too much in reserve
Good teams have great benches. France's today is up there with the best. Any country that can keep players such as Julien Bonnaire, Vincent Clerc, Dimitri Szarzewski and Frederic Michalak gathering splinters this afternoon against Scotland must have one heck of a starting line-up. Then again, this is France, and this is another topsy-turvy selection from boss Marc Lievremont.
The word in France was that Lievremont was sorted. He had finished picking players from nowhere, finished playing players out of position, finished behaving like a man who had no idea of what constituted his best team and not the slightest clue as to how to set them up. So what does Lievremont do? He leaves out 10 of his men from France's last outing, a 39-12 defeat to the All Blacks, hailed by New Zealand coach Graham Henry as by far their best display of the season, which seems a good reason not to overreact, and starts all over. Any other national coach as profligate would be looking for a new job.
But this is France, a nation which still spits out great backs, a nation which still revels in the brutal aspects of modern rugby, and Lievremont can get away with it because of the quality at his disposal. There are four players operating for France today -- Yannick Jauzion, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Aurelien Rougerie -- who are world class. Four or five more are moving that way.
If France hit the play button, Scotland won't have a chance, even at Murrayfield, even stoked by coach Andy Robinson who excels at coaxing heroic, rearguard efforts from a tight-knit group of players. But France rarely sustain excellence. Last season they were wonderful in patches against Wales and rubbish against England. They fade for large chunks of matches and their form swings wildly between games.
This is Lievremont's legacy. The players are there. The fact that France have four representatives in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup makes that point. They just need time to settle, to bond, to build and one day to repeat regularly the kind of rugby they and their fans deserve. That could come about today.
Scotland simply do not have that potency. Murrayfield is a huge factor for them, and you can count on Robinson to fire them up, but they don't stack up as a package. Examine Scotland closely and there are holes. For all his excellence as a kicker, Chris Paterson, who will be collecting his 99th cap, doesn't cut it as an attacking full-back. Phil Godman, despite starting his 13th successive match at out-half, has not yet managed to rid Scotland of the regular criticism that they lack a cutting edge. Chris Cusiter, the captain, has not reclaimed the form that had people suggesting he was an early contender for the Lions starting scrum-half. The second row lacks balance, the back row appears lightweight. Losing Euan Murray to his spiritual beliefs and Rory Lamont to injury are big blows too.
Yet to rule Scotland out of the match would be crazy. France can trip up on the road. They also have a pair of half-backs, Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc, who fluff their lines at times. Scotland under Robinson have acquired more substance. Their victory against Australia in the autumn was as obdurate as any anywhere in the last five years and there are signs that the team is beginning to offer more than resilience.
Lock Nathan Hines grew in stature on the Lions tour in the summer, as did Ross Ford late on, and that pair will stoke Scotland's front five. Max Evans and Graeme Morrison are establishing a settled partnership in the midfield, another difficult area for Scotland in the past. There is real pace in Thom Evans, Max's brother, out on the wing. Paterson will punish French indiscipline. Going into the last quarter, if Scotland are hanging on to France's coat tails and the fervent Murrayfield crowd swings into action, then a surprise is on the cards. But for that to happen France must lose focus.
That is what today will be all about. There is no better team than Scotland when it comes to upsetting opponents' rhythm, especially at Murrayfield.
Four years ago, under Frank Hadden, Scotland did just that, but France have won there on the other four occasions in the Six Nations. Scotland still have to demonstrate that they can create as well as destroy. There were no tries in their victory against the Wallabies towards the end of last year and that was followed by another barren display against Argentina. Teams that rely on guts alone rarely make significant progress.
The same goes for France. It is no longer acceptable that they operate sporadically. Great teams build dynasties off the back of victories like the one France achieved in the first Test of their summer tour of New Zealand. France need guts. France need what Scotland possess, just as Scotland require a little of France's elan. Both teams seeking what the other has to make them whole. Fascinating. France, though, to finish as the more complete of the two.