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Saturday, February 04, 2006

 

Six Nations: Scots host the French

The Scotland/France match tomorrow should be fascinating. Scotland are desperate to halt the slide in their fortunes whilst France are eager to build towards the world cup next year.

Brendan Gallagher of the Telegraph provides the low down on tomorrow's clash.

If performances against the All Blacks are the true yardstick of international rugby - when have they not been? - then Scotland, at last, are on detectable upward curve and need fear nobody in this season's Six Nations.

It was the manner of their 29-10 defeat against New Zealand in November that gives modest cause for hope, with a return to their fast, hard-rucking game up front, allied to adventurous, direct running behind. A good performance, not blessed with much luck, against a brilliant team.

It was not enough, of course, to defeat Tana Umaga's men on the day but Scotland can join a long queue in that respect. More of the same, though, would be good enough to ruffle a few feathers in the Six Nations and finally breathe some life into a moribund Murrayfield.

Tomorrow they line up against a supremely talented but slightly edgy French side who have been deprived at the last minute of centre Yannick Jauzion, whose foot problem has belatedly been diagnosed as a broken toe. He will also miss next weekend's game against Ireland. Ludovic Valbon will deputise.

As of yesterday there were still 15,000 tickets left for tomorrow's game, and though Scotland cannot be blamed for these unloved Sunday kick-offs, their challenge is to make every home championship game a sell-out again.

"We have home advantage, a noisy crowd, and the guys like nothing better than playing at Murrayfield," Jason White, Scotland's captain, said. "It's our home, where we love to play and we're looking forward to performing well and getting a victory.

"We're going to look to play with the ball to get the crowd involved and make them feel part of it. We've got some great runners and we're looking to use them."

Scotland must remember what they did well in November. Their forwards, especially in the second half, hunted as a pack and recycled with New Zealand-style efficiency.

Space was found for powerful runners such as Hugo Southwell, Sean Lamont and Andrew Henderson, while Chris Paterson, Scotland's most talented all-round footballer out on the wing, was brought into the game as much as possible.

There will be another factor tomorrow. Mike Blair - a big name in the making two years ago before a slump in form - is back at scrum-half, preferred to Chris Cusiter.

While the latter's defensive qualities are excellent, Blair is a much more potent runner and, with their renewed confidence, Scotland intend to get on the front foot as much as possible. That is the theory.

For the French, meanwhile, this game presents exactly the kind of challenge that will tell us everything we need to know about Bernard Laporte's latest team.

A cold, dull afternoon in Edinburgh against an improving Scotland side who have the capacity to raise their game is an awkward assignment, especially if France underestimate their opponents.

Win well and France will confirm that they are in the early stages of building an outstanding side to take the 2007 World Cup by storm. Lose, and life becomes much more difficult.

Laporte acknowledges as much and the coach talks openly about this Six Nations tournament not standing in isolation. "We have two challenges now: one is to win because the Six Nations is a big competition, the other one is to build, because the aim is the World Cup. It is there in the back of our minds," he said.

France should depart with a win if all their big names fire and they resist the Toulouse habit of inexplicably taking their foot of the gas. Arrogance, laziness, boredom, show-boating?

Europe's premier club side get away with breezing in and out of games in the Heineken Cup, but the Six Nations is different. France went to sleep against Wales last season after all but destroying them in the first half and paid dearly.

They will also be mindful of a distinctly average performance against Scotland in Paris last February, when only a borderline decision against Scotland flanker Ally Hogg enabled them to scrape an unimpressive 16-9 win at the Stade de France.

Scotland have everything to play for - which has not always been the case recently - but if France are the quality team we think they are, they will prevail, albeit by a narrow margin.
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