PARIS (AP) Scotland has not beaten France in France since 1999 but will be in the rare position of favorite when they meet at Stade de France on Sunday in the Six Nations.
Rather than scraping by on penalties and the odd try, Scotland is much more ambitious and often daring, thanks to the panache of fullback Stuart Hogg and the cunning of scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw allied to usually relentless forwards. Vern Cotter’s last season in charge is brimming with promise and he has laid solid foundations.
Last weekend, Hogg scored two early tries as Ireland was beaten 27-22 at Murrayfield, while France lost to England 19-16 at Twickenham.
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Along with Hogg’s lightning-fast breaks, Scotland innovated against the Irish by putting centre Alex Dunbar and two other backs in a lineout, leading to Dunbar’s try. It was an audacious move. However, the French have been warned: Scotland’s scrum is wobbly, and British Lions lock candidates Jonny and Richie Gray are likely to be kept busier by a French side looking to offload more than the Irish.
”It was a great result (against Ireland) and we’ll take the benefits from it. But we weren’t perfect,” Scotland prop Zander Fagerson said.
”We made a hell of a lot of errors so if we want to be the best team, we need to scrub them out and put in an 80-minute performance. Once we can do that, I’ll say we’re on the way.”
France has made considerable progress since last year’s campaign, where it finished second-to-last and scraped out dull home wins against Italy and Ireland.
Although France is playing better rugby under coach Guy Noves – the architect of Toulouse’s European and domestic success – the improvement only stretches so far. Noves has yet to find a way to make his side clinical in the way England was last weekend, beating France with a late try despite being second best for long spells.
It is becoming a familiar tale of narrow defeats against top teams: 25-23 against Australia and 24-19 against New Zealand in November.
”We’ve had just about enough of saying we’re on the right track, that they’re encouraging defeats,” No. 8 Louis Picamoles said, adding that France’s positive passages of play are often undone by ”indiscipline, naivety, and a lack of precision.”
Noves wants France to be less cautious than during his predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre’s ill-fated era, which ended with a crushing 62-13 loss to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.
He has recalled erratic flyhalf Camille Lopez and paired him alongside waif-life scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, who has quick hands and is often one step ahead of his teammates. Serin has the cut of a confident player and looks like a real find, so Noves may be best served starting him for the whole tournament.
What France desperately needs, however, is a finishing touch.
Star center Wesley Fofana’s injury-forced absence was keenly felt against England, where France lacked options during spells of pressure. The French often got behind the English line but failed to capitalize.
When playing under pressure, France needs to improve in the closing stages. The team also lacks depth and is short on experience. England’s players averaged nearly twice as many test caps last weekend, despite having a similar average age.
”We’re lacking in maturity, our team is very young,” Noves said. ”It pains me to say that every player, whether he started the game or came on (against England), made an unforgiveable error.”
Stability and consistency, however, are hard to maintain with a revolving door of players.
France has a long-standing habit of chopping and changing its halves and props. Noves has tried out more than 50 players and has eights halves combinations in 11 matches.
Defeat against Scotland may put an early end to the Serin-Lopez pairing.
France: Scott Spedding, Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Loann Goujon, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Uni Atonio, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Cyril Baille. Reserves: Christopher Tolofua, Rabah Slimani, Xavier Chiocci, Julien Le Devedec, Damien Chouly, Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain, Yoann Huget.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Josh Strauss, Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Allan Dell. Reserves: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Tim Swinson, John Hardie, Ali Price, Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett.