The bookies don’t give Scotland much of a chance of beating France on Sunday, giving odds of 9/4 against a home side victory. Recent history is even more dismissive of Scotland’s chances, France having 12 of the 13 previous matches between the sides. And yet there are good reasons for the patriotic Scotland crowd to bring a little more to the game than song, whisky and blind optimism.
In this season’s Heineken Cup Glasgow beat Montpellier at home and drew with them in France. Edinburgh achieved the biggest comeback in Heineken history (24 points) to beat Racing at home and then knocked over a drop goal to beat them in France. Glasgow and Edinburgh are pretty much the Scotland side and those two results should give Scotland’s players some confidence about their ability to compete against France’s elite.
It is hard to under estimate how repetitive victory can become. From 1980-1992 Scotland won every match at Murrayfield between the two sides (France mirrored home advantage in Paris over the same period) and the Gauls developed a bit of a phobia about going to Edinburgh.
There is a strong argument that provincial success does not breed international success in the same way, but there is also little doubt that the All Blacks are stronger for the Crusaders, Australia for the Reds (or the Brumbies once upon a time) and South Africa (when they won the 2007 World Cup) for the Bulls. England’s World Cup victory came when Leicester, Wasps and Northampton were strong. And Ireland have started to beat England regularly since their provinces wrested power from the English clubs.
I would give Scotland an almost even chance of victory if tighthead Euan Murray was not missing the match because it falls on a Sunday and if Andy Robinson had gone with his initial World Cup half back pairing of Rory Lawson and Ruaridh Jackson. Scotland looked at their best when those two were on the park together.
Instead Robinson has selected Edinburgh’s Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw. Scotland have now gone nine matches without pairing the same halfbacks in consecutive games. Much is down to injury, but it is hard to imagine New Zealand or Australia carrying on like that through a sequence of big matches.
The loss of Murray is a blow, but Robinson will be pleased that France, who have won six of their previous seven games at Murrayfield by nine points or more (average margin over 20) have neither Domingo nor Servat in their front row on Sunday. Those two joined with Nicolas Mas in demolishing Scotland’s scrum last year, but France never scrummage so well when Dimitri Szarzewski starts as hooker.
This is a match that could save Robinson’s job if Scotland win it. The forwards showed against Wales and England that they are good enough to take on France. The question, as ever, is whether Scotland can find enough way of scoring points with such a poverty of midfield options.
In a couple of years time this is going to be a pretty good Scotland side. There are a number of top young players like David Denton, Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg coming through. The future has not looked so good since the eighties. But the fans are tired of waiting for the future to become the present. Sunday against France would not be a bad time to begin the new era.