Monday 19 March 2018

Scots have it in them to revisit some old glories

A surprise could be on the cards today if Scotland do what they traditionally do to France in Murrayfield, says Eddie Butler

It is so typically Scottish to have Euan Murray, a prop who won't play on a Sunday, and a fixture list that orders them to play on two.

This brace of games on Euan's day of contemplation also affords them space here, and so begins the nth chapter of 'Digging the Scottish Hole', a weary tome that set out to extol northern virtue but that is fast becoming naught but a catalogue of failure.

The latest heading is 'France next -- what can go wrong this time?'

It could be a long chapter. Basically you can fit the entirety of Scottish rugby into the two exits off the Paris peripherique, that lead to the homes of Racing Metro 92 and Stade Francais. Scotland have two professional districts; France's capital has two clubs in the Top 14, leaving the country with 12 more elsewhere, to make the point that France should swat Scotland aside every time they meet.

And they do generally, even at Murrayfield, a place where France had a tendency to come unstuck back in the amateur days of the Five Nations and the freres Hastings. In these professional times of the Six Nations, Scotland have beaten France just the once, in 2006, when two tries by Sean Lamont made the defiant point that size isn't everything.

That result contradicts the latest statistical revelation by those masters of confirming the blood-bin obvious, the International Rugby Board, that big players are more effective than little ones. Who'd have thought it in a game of physical contact?

Andy Robinson, the coach of Scotland now -- Frank Hadden was in charge in '06 -- seems to have read the IRB report and had a Damascene moment: "Big players . . . oh, thank you. I was so wrong and you have shown me the way."

His centre combination is Graeme Morrison and Lamont, both of caber-tossing dimensions and with, well, caber-tossing delicacy of pass.

France are not exactly small in midfield but there is a grace to Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana, their centres from Clermont in the Massif Central. They are surrounded by players of power and pace, with Maxime Medard a particular threat from fullback. Francois Trinh-Duc appears to have reconstructed his strut at 10 after his World Cup of being reduced to the bench by Marc Lievremont.

And there is the deliciously small Vincent Clerc on the wing, closing in on Serge Blanco's try-scoring record of 38. He currently stands on 32 tries, alongside his coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, who will be willing him to storm ahead, wagging a finger at those who count the yards made only by the monsters. The spirit of Shane Williams and of rugby as a refuge for all shapes and sizes lives on.

If the Six Nations was supposed to mark the start of a new World Cup cycle somebody forgot to tell Saint-Andre. Not for him the promise of youth up front, but a reinvestment in experience. Yoann Maestri, his second row from Toulouse, is the one player he is prepared to squeeze into the aged press, but even he is 24 years old. Lionel Nallet, now 35, sits on the bench, his formidable mentor.

From Jean-Baptiste Poux and Nicolas Mas, props in their 30s, to the peerless Thierry Dusautoir in the back row, France offer a hunting pack of seasoned campaigners. Perhaps they would prefer a more sedate pace, but when they are in the mood -- and Saint-Andre seems to have done nothing to upset them -- they can still bound at a frightening lick. Of course they should beat Scotland.

How is it possible after defeat at home to England, and the second-half collapse against Wales, to seek out the theme that promoted Scottish hopes at the start of the month? The missed chances against tenderfoot England and the quick-fire quintet of sin-binnings and Welsh tries, all stemming from one moment of hesitation on the touchline by Chris Cusiter, suggest that Scotland are inadequate technically and fragile constitutionally.

Well, here's the prediction. Against all reason, Scotland are going to provide the upset of the season and win. Not by much -- that would be asking too much of the powers of distribution of their centres -- but by a blast of folly they will prevail.

For a full half against Wales they were solid in defence and promising in attack, gathering themselves, it seemed, for some outpouring of bountiful vengefulness. And then they collapsed. But Scotland, through long practice maybe, bounce back well from defeat. There is nothing wrong with the delivery of ball from the forwards, although France will sorely test their scrummage, and absolutely nothing wrong with the rate of supply, the ruck ball appearing with a speed that would be the envy of every other team in the world.

There is no doubt that there is a problem with invention beyond Greig Laidlaw, but in broken play Morrison and Lamont can still make the difference. Crunch and pass, bump and give. Not crunch and stumble, bump and bumble. There will be back row players on hand and, above all, Stuart Hogg not far away.

This pathetic insistence on the value of Scotland relies on the hands and feet of a 20-year-old fullback, the youngest to play for his country for 111 years. As Euan Murray may be musing somewhere today: "Lord spare us." But that's how it's going to be, just as they used to say in the days of the Hastings brothers, when Scotland beat France at Murrayfield: "Strange but true."


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