PREVIEW: France v Scotland
SIX NATIONS ROUND THREE: Under-fire France might never have a better opportunity to get their Six Nations back up and running as they host a Scotland side considerably shorn of its sparkle on Saturday.
The French have lost 10 of their last 13 games, having fallen to Wales in their opening Six Nations before being hammered 44-8 by England, their heaviest loss to the ‘Rosbifs’ since 1911.
Since Brunel took charge in December 2017, his side have conceded an average of 34 points per game and have only scored more than 30 themselves on one occasion.
A first-ever defeat by Fiji in November further increased the pressure on Brunel, who as Italy coach between 2012-16 oversaw just 11 wins in 50 games.
“There’s no magic recipe, there’s no ‘it’s the players’ fault, it’s the coaches’ fault’. If we start looking at things on a personal level we will not manage to get out of it,” said prop Jefferson Poirot.
Put simply, France need to start winning, with less than seven months from the start of the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo. The stereotypically fickle French fans have been quick to turn on Les Bleus, who will nevertheless welcome the Scots to a sold-out Stade de France on Saturday.
“There is anger, a desire to react, there is a lot of rage in everyone,” insisted France lock Felix Lambey.
“Everyone is really hurt. We want to show a different face and finally win.”
Brunel has rung the changes for Saturday’s match, dropping experienced half-backs Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez in favour of the green Toulouse duo Antoine Dupont, 22, and Romain Ntamack, 19, who have only started three Tests between them.
Brunel said the decision had no relation with Parra and Lopez’s criticism of the team’s strategy following the heavy loss to England at Twickenham.
“It’s a sporting choice, it has nothing to do with what was said,” Brunel said.
Wenceslas Lauret comes in for Yacouba Camara at blindside flanker, Gael Fickou moves from the wing to the centre as Geoffrey Doumayrou drops out of the matchday squad, and Thomas Ramos makes his first Test start at full-back with Yoann Huget shifting to the wing.
Brunel’s Scottish counterpart, Gregor Townsend, has had to do some personnel juggling of his own, in the knowledge that Scotland’s last victory on French soil came on their way to winning the last-ever Five Nations title in 1999 – a match in which Townsend played.
Among a host of players ruled out through injury are dynamic full-back Stuart Hogg, free-running centre Huw Jones and influential flyhalf Finn Russell, who ironically picked up a head knock after turning out for his club Racing 92 in the French Top 14 last weekend.
Scotland beat Italy 33-20 in their opening match but then succumbed 22-13 to Ireland, and Townsend said his side were prepped for a fired-up France team.
“At home, France have played really well in the past two Championships,” the former flyhalf said.
“They were 16-0 up at half-time against Wales, and their previous Six Nations games before included a win over England and a last-minute defeat to the eventual Irish team that went on to win the Grand Slam.”
Townsend added: “They are a very dangerous opponent, combining power, ambition and skill. Their individual talent is outstanding and, when they get things right – which has predominantly been in the Six Nations at home – they’ve played with a real collective spirit and fed off the emotion of the crowd.
“They will certainly be fired up following their loss at Twickenham.
“Like France, we too are coming off the back of a defeat and want to show a better picture of ourselves and play closer to our potential.”
Players to watch:
For France: Coach Brunel dropped experienced halfbacks Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez for the much younger Toulouse duo Antoine Dupont (RPI 92) and Romain Ntamack (RPI 84), who will have to prove themselves against the Scots. Big centre Mathieu Bastareaud (RPI 76) is always a peculiar character to observe. The pack Louis Picamoles (RPI 81) brings in the physicality that will be vital for France at the breakdown. Hooker and captain Guilhelm Guirado (RPI 83) always gives 100 percent for his team when he takes to the field.
For Scotland: Blair Kinghorn, (RPI 86) Round one’s hat-trick hero, replaces Stuart Hogg – which will, certainly puts him under the spotlight. Flyhalf Pete Horne will hope his Pro14 man-of-the-match performance continues when he takes the place of Finn Russell. While South African-born No.8 Josh Strauss (RPI 63), following his passport hiccup, will have a massive role to play.
Head to head: France will rely heavily on Mathieu Bastareaud and Gaël Fickou bashing through the midfield nullifying the impact of Scotland’s Nick Grigg and Sam Johnson. The other training match-up will be the contest between the No.10. – Pete Horne versus Romain Ntamack. The two will have to dictate their side’s attack in the absence of first-choice flyhalves Finn Russell and Camille Lopez. France’s big front row Demba Bamba, Guilhem Guirado, and Jefferson Poirot will pose a big challenge to Simon Berghan, Stuart McInally, and Allan Dell.
2018: Scotland won 32-26, Edinburgh
2017: France won 22-16, Paris
2016: Scotland won 29-18, Edinburgh
2015: France won 19-16, Paris
2015: France won 15-8, Paris
2014: France won 19-17, Edinburgh
2013: France won 23-16, Paris
2012: France won 23-17, Edinburgh
2011: France won 34-21, Paris
2010: France won 18-9, Edinburgh
2009: France won 22-13, Paris
Prediction: France teams will be desperate to bounce back following two consecutive defeats and will fancy their chances against the unpredictable Scots. Townsend side have not been in fine form, furthermore, with home ground advantage on their side, France will take this by three points.
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Félix Lambey, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Maxime Médard.
Scotland: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Pete Horne, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Alex Allan, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Gary Graham, 21 Ali Price, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Darcy Graham
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Stade de France, France
Kick-off: 15.15 (14.15 GMT, 14.15 UK time)
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)