If part of the joy of the Six Nations is the glorious unpredictability of it all, for France there is an uneasy sense of déjà vu about what lies ahead at Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon.
Les Bleus lorded it over Scotland with only one defeat in the first 16 years of the expanded Championship, but 2016 proved something of a watershed in relations for the Auld Alliance, with the Scots having won four of the last six tournament encounters, including the last three in Edinburgh.
The Glasgow back row Rory Darge is one of three changes to Scotland’s starting lineup
Recent history has not stopped thousands of buoyant French supporters descending on the Scottish capital after opening victories over Italy and Ireland, but there are reasons for caution in Tricolore ranks.
Gregor Townsend’s side derailed the last French grand slam bandwagon two years ago, and memories of Scotland’s stunning 27-23 triumph in Paris at the end of last year’s championship are still painfully fresh.
A third successive Championship victory over the French for the first time since 1958 would reignite hopes of a top-two finish for Stuart Hogg and company, with Italy in Rome next and the prospect of heading to Dublin on the final day with an outside shot at the title themselves.
So much for the tartan-tinted view. The pessimists argue, with some justification, that the Scots’ defeat in Cardiff a fortnight ago exposed a familiar failing when burdened with heightened expectations. Then factor in that the French appear to have kicked on apace over the past year, adding greater power, defensive resolve, speed and consistency to their game to the extent that Townsend rates them as “arguably the best team in the world” on current form.
There remains an intriguing psychological dynamic to this fixture, though. France may have blown New Zealand away last autumn and bludgeoned a confident Ireland to defeat last time out, but they have not found the Scots to be so accommodating when something tangible is on the line.
In 2020 France lost fly-half Romain Ntamack to an early injury, flanker François Cros to a yellow card and had prop Mohamed Haouas sent off for a swinging punch at Jamie Ritchie all before half-time. Scotland ruthlessly exploited their numerical advantage to inflict the heaviest defeat – 28-17 – of Fabien Galthié’s reign at a raucous Murrayfield.
“They are a team who pose us problems and we are aware of the level we need to be at in all areas to compete,” said the head coach. “Murrayfield is always extraordinary but we learned a lot from that match. We have prepared ourselves accordingly – physically, tactically and psychologically.”
The visitors have the stardust of Antoine Dupont and Ntamack to sprinkle on proceedings but they also have their fair share of brute force inside and outside their half-back duo for a match Galthié believes will be decided by “physical domination”.
The formidably strong Jonathan Danty is back at centre alongside Gaël Fickou and Galthié has moved Yoram Moefana from midfield to replace the injured Gabin Villière on the wing, ostensibly to counteract Scotland’s “very fast, very powerful” three-quarters, notably wings Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe who Galthié believes are “walking on water at the moment”.
Scotland have scored a couple of tasty multi-phase tries against England and Wales but their attack has only spluttered fitfully so far. With a dry forecast, Hogg believes that could change.
“Hopefully if we get the pictures we have seen from the French defence, there are huge opportunities for us with ball in hand,” he said. “I have no doubt if we carry hard, move them around and find space, our attack will really get going.”
Key to that vision, as always, will be Finn Russell, who Hogg praised for the “outstanding” analysis he has provided on opponents he plays with and against in the Top 14 for Racing 92.
“Finn has been absolute quality and is getting really excited about the opportunities in attack and driving the way we want to play,” Hogg said. “I’ve no doubt he will execute everything he wants to do to get us moving forward.”
Scotland’s back-row resources have been further depleted with Matt Fagerson joining Jamie Ritchie on the sidelines and Sam Skinner switching to lock. Townsend was dealt a further blow on Friday evening when flanker Hamish Watson was forced out of the starting XV after testing positive for Covid. That, in turn, has led to Edinburgh’s Nick Haining coming in to the team to play on the blindside, with Rory Darge moving to openside flanker.
Saracens’ Andy Christie also comes into the matchday squad and the 22-year-old would make what would be his Scotland debut were he to be called on to feature from the replacements.
Two members of the Scotland backroom team have also tested positive for Covid and will isolate as per Scottish government guidelines.
The Scots, as Skinner noted this week, are in “do or die” mode. If the French have the heavy artillery and genius of Dupont to prevail in a tight contest, it would not be a major surprise if the hosts live to fight another day in their quest to become Championship contenders.