Fraser Brown: My fitness tracker was off the scale watching Scotland opener - but we have tools to pull France apart
Like a lot of people these days I wear a fitness tracker on my wrist. They were introduced a few years ago by the strength and conditioning team at Scotland to help track performance, exertion, stress, sleep, recovery etc.
The game in Cardiff at the weekend will go down as one of the great Six Nations matches and while the first 50 minutes was as good a performance any Scotland team has every put in away to Wales, the last 30 had the band on my wrist buzzing repeatedly, letting me know I had reached my peak stress level. Such is the life of a Scotland fan. As uncomfortable as the second half was, credit where it’s due, Scotland made sure they did enough to hold on and win and create a little bit of history for the first time in over two decades.
It’s France up next and they will come to Murrayfield on Saturday with a point to prove. As poor as they were In Marseille on Friday night, Ireland were excellent; ruthless and efficient and deserving of their 38-17 win. It will be interesting to see how France rock up this week because we’ve not seen that sort of performance from them in the past three years. They clearly missed Antoine Dupont, their captain and talisman, who is sitting out the Six Nations to concentrate on playing for their sevens team at this summer’s Olympics in Paris. For all the x-factor that comes with Dupont, it was his control and stewardship they missed most.
France’s kicking wasn’t good. Maxime Lucu, who replaced Dupont at scrum-half, struggled as Ireland put him under pressure at the back of the ruck. They never looked in control and Ireland’s pressure forced France into trying to play too much out of their own half. When Dupont’s there, France don’t mess around in their own half; they look to kick, exit and get high up the pitch. On Friday, they got caught two or three times trying to play a too much rugby and it led to turnovers which gave Ireland access back into their 22.
Defensively, France looked all at sea. The quality of their collisions was well below their usual standard, inhibiting their chance to slow the ball at the breakdown and set their defensive line. France have constantly been at the top of the charts in terms of breakdown turnovers won in recent seasons and in particular jackal turnovers. They have threats right across the team – Peato Mauvaka, Grégory Alldritt, Jonathan Danty, Gael Fickou to name a few – but they were rarely seen on Friday night. They got battered at the breakdown by Ireland’s support play and they just couldn’t contain them.
With no Dupont and Romain Ntamack still out injured, there was always the potential that they wouldn’t be as well organised as we’ve come to expect in recent seasons. I didn’t see Alldritt carrying much and he’s usually a guy who carries 20 times per game. The red card for Paul Willemse had a massive impact because it meant France lost one of their main ruck-clearers and someone else has to pick up the work he is doing around the attacking breakdown. The French defensive system has been so hard to break down in recent seasons but at the weekend Ireland were able to pick them off, almost at ease. Systems that have appeared foolproof suddenly looked disorganised.
It can be easy to fix in a week. Their defensive system has provided the backbone for their return to the top of world rugby in the last few years. It was exposed at the weekend and Scotland will hope to do the same this week. France will undoubtedly be better, so Scotland will need to be too if they want to make it two from two.
One of the interesting things that Scotland were doing against Wales was using another player (usually a prop) to launch their second rows at the nine when he’s box-kicking in an attempt to charge him down. Exeter did it last season to good effect and it’s an interesting tactic against a team who take a while to set up to kick. However, good teams and good players might look to exploit the hole around the ruck left by two players, and Scotland will have to be wary.
I think Lucu will start again for France and, despite what happened on Friday, he is a class player. Neither Matthieu Jalibert, who was playing at 10, nor full-back Thomas Ramos was overly eager to step up at first receiver and alleviate some of the pressure on Lucu and it may be they look at an alternative exit strategy this week.
The game with Scotland will be won up front. With Willemse suspended I think Cameron Woki will start and Posolo Tuilagi will stay on the bench. Woki is a big lineout presence, and they need that because their lineout fell to pieces on Friday and it probably cost them the game. They just couldn’t build a platform to attack. Scotland’s lineout started to creak a little bit after Richie Gray went off injured and he’ll be missed this weekend. But Grant Gilchrist is back from suspension which is good news because the lineout can look a little suspect when both are missing. The set-piece will be a huge battleground this week.
I don’t think we’ll see too many changes in the Scotland team. The front row will be the same and Grant will come in for Richie in the second row. If Rory Darge is fit I would imagine he’ll come in at seven and Jamie Ritchie would switch to six, although there is an argument for starting Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson and Darge in the back row. The make-up off the bench might change. Jamie Bhatti could come in but Alec Hepburn did well when he came on against Wales.
I thought Scotland could have looked to the bench a little earlier at the weekend in Cardiff to try and slow the Welsh momentum and gain back some control. In retrospect the most disappointing thing was not coming away with a four-try bonus point. Having scored three after 43 minutes you would expect to get a fourth and it could hurt them come the end of the competition.
Scotland will be disappointed with the quality of their collisions in the second half especially their tackle quality and some of the decisions players were making about when to go into defensive rucks and when to stay out and set width in the defensive line. Losing numbers shortens your line, effects your ability to get square make quality collisions and ultimately slow the speed of ball. Discipline was obviously a big issue for Scotland in the second half. I think it was 14 penalties in a row they gave away so to win the game with those numbers is a credit to Scotland because no team on the planet in Test rugby should win a game giving away that number of consecutive penalties.
Some of them were because of pressure but some were just plain wrong. George Turner got penalised for not rolling away as a tackler which led to a Zander Fagerson penalty which led to George’s second penalty at the lineout maul which led to a yellow card and the first Welsh try, for James Botham. But at the initial penalty George wasn’t the tackler. He’s gone in as the jackler and has then been croc-rolled off the ball by a Welsh player. It should have been a penalty to Scotland because it was round the neck but he ended up pinned in the ruck and penalised for not rolling away, which was just wrong. Sometimes these decisions just go against you and whilst it doesn’t excuse poor discipline thereafter, they can have significant impacts in important moments of the game.
This weekend’s match will be fascinating. If Scotland can get on the front foot from a set-piece point of view they’ve definitely got the tools to pull apart that French defence. With the backs they’ve got, Scotland can be dangerous off counter-attack ball. They know France will kick more to them than they did against Ireland and Scotland will probably put a real focus on that in their preparations this week as they try to strike off counter-attack ball. Finn Russell has got brilliant vision and he picked off another 50:22 against Wales so France will have to get the balance of numbers in the front line to shut down counter opportunities with not leaving too much space in the backfield and creating those 50:22 opportunities.
We’ve got a strong recent record against France at Murrayfield and if we can iron out the issues that dogged us in the second half in Cardiff and attack France right from the start of the game then I’m confident of another Scottish victory.
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