Preview: France v Scotland
SIX NATIONS ROUND FOUR: France coach Fabien Galthie says his side are “on alert” against complacency as they travel to Scotland on Sunday.
They are looking to set up a Grand Slam showdown with Ireland a week later.
Galthie’s Les Bleus are unbeaten in their opening three games of the tournament but head to Murrayfield without a win in Edinburgh since 2014.
A victory in the Scottish capital would give Galthie’s side a shot at a first Grand Slam since 2010 by hosting Ireland on March 14.
“We have to keep the standards we have been looking for on and off the field,” Galthie said.
“It’s what’s at stake. We are on alert for this type of experience, we are on alert for this danger,” he added.
The former scrumhalf’s team manager Raphael Ibanez also had a word of warning for their inexperienced side.
Only wing Gael Fickou has more than 50 Test appearances and lock Bernard Le Roux is the sole member of the squad older than 30.
“We’re in a positive situation. Obviously, there’s a perspective of great things to come but with that in mind nothing is written beforehand,” Ibanez said.
“We will remain careful, humble and we will work.”
Russell’s inside information
Galthie’s Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend has enlisted the help of exiled flyhalf Finn Russell, who plays his club rugby with Paris’ Racing 92, as well as scrum coach Pieter de Villiers who made 69 appearances for France between 1999-2007.
Despite his input, Russell will not feature for his country this weekend due to a breakdown in his relationship with Townsend.
“We don’t know the French as well as the other teams, we don’t play them on a regular basis in the Pro14, and the French have brought a number of new players into their squad,” Townsend said.
“Conversations with players who are playing in France, people who have worked under Fabien Galthie in the past, and also having a former French international [Pieter de Villiers] on our coaching staff has certainly helped.
“It was good to have that contact to help us with our preparation,” he added.
Despite the absence of the influential Russell, Galthie said Townsend’s men remain dangerous.
“When they get into the action zone, they are capable of creating chaos by moving the ball wide, long passes, and the speed of their players,” he said.
“Individuals like Hamish Watson, who is an excellent player, and Stuart Hogg too. Their organisation around the ball is capable of hurting pretty much any team in the world,” he added.
The game takes place under the cloud of the coronavirus outbreak.
Italy’s trip to Ireland this weekend has been postponed as has England’s visit to Rome next Saturday.
Nine people have died in France from COVID-19 and Ibanez said it was now time for his side to focus on the game after doubts it would go ahead earlier in the week.
“Obviously we haven’t been able to avoid the news. We took time to explain to the players what could happen. After the public authorities confirmed the game could go ahead we automatically switched onto the rugby,” he said.
“With the next match in Paris, we are well informed, the authorities keep us informed. For now, we are preparing to play these two matches,” he added.
Players to watch
For Scotland: The considerable number of foreign ‘imports’ will play a crucial role. Sean Maitland (New Zealand, an old hand) will be crucial to the Scottish attack. However, it is off the bench where the imports will come, all from South Africa – Allan Dell, Willem Nel and the most recent Kyle Steyn.
For France: The midfield monster Virimi Vakatawa is key to their improved attack. Romain Ntamack is the general that directs the traffic. Up front their two South African imports – Paul Willemse and Bernard Le Roux at lock – will add their considerable bulk and aggression to the French cause.
Head to head
Since being appointed captain, Charles Ollivon has led his side superbly and now stands within two victories of winning the Grand Slam. Not only has the flank been dominant at the line-out – winning more than any other player – and in attack he has also scored three tries in this year’s Championship. But Ollivon is unlikely to have it all his own way this weekend as he comes up against bruising back-rower Hamish Watson. Watson has racked up 165 metres from 31 carries and has proven to be a menace at the breakdown, producing a man-of-the-match display against Italy.
Prediction: The sides are very evenly matched when it comes to opposition 22 entries. Scotland has 8.3 per match, which is the second-highest average in the Championship, while France trail just behind with 8.0 per game. Both sides have very similar success at the gainline with France just edging the Scots in terms of metres made per carry. France gain metres with 53.8 per cent of their carries, just ahead of Scotland who also makes metres with over half their carries 51.4 percent. Gregory Alldritt has an astonishing 49 defensive breakdown arrivals, 11 more than any other player in the competition. He’s also one of just three players who have more than two breakdown steals (3), alongside Christiaan Stander and Jake Polledri. In the 20 meetings in the Guinness Six Nations, France has won 17 times. But Scotland has won two of their past four matches against Les Bleus in the Championship.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg (captain), 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Blair Kinghorn, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Ali Price, 8 Nick Haining, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Jamie Ritchie, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Rory Sutherland.
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Magnus Bradbury, 21 George Horne, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Kyle Steyn.
France: 15 Anthony Bouthier, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Arthur Vincent, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (captain), 6 Francois Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Dylan Cretin, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Matthieu Jalibert, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Date: Sunday, March 8
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 15.00 (15.00 GMT; 16.00 France time)
Expected weather: Variable cloudiness with a couple of showers. Wind at 20 km/h, with gusts of 32 km/h. High of 9°C and a low of 4°C
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Frank Murphy (Ireland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
* Additional reporting by @rugby365com & @SixNationsRugby