By Tadhg Peavoy
What a rare and beautiful opportunity Scotland have this weekend.
If they defeat France in Paris they will condemn Les Bleus to a first Wooden Spoon since 1999 and a first winless championship season since 1969; if they can manage the feat then it will go down as one of the best moments in recent Scottish rugby history.
The problem is that the Thistle’s record in the City of Light is beyond woeful.
Their last win there coming in France’s Wooden Spoon season of ’99, when they spanked the French 36-22 on the last weekend of the season to win the very last Five Nations crown.
That day, 10 April 1999, produced eight tries in a classic encounter.
Scotland are unlikely to get a better chance of another win in Paris than this Saturday, but the gut just says France will not lose this one.
Hot and cold France
The mercurial 2011 Rugby World Cup finalists were shockingly bad against Italy and Wales in their tournament openers, but against England they were unlucky to lose, and against Ireland they could have won the game at the death.
Prior to the season commencing, the France backline was being touted as the best in the tournament and a group that would set the championship alight.
But bar Wesley Fofana’s magnificent try against England, they have been ineffective and seemingly devoid of any clear game plan.
Why? Because out-half Frederic Michalak has been completely ineffectual in guiding his team either from boot or hand.
France looked on the way to victory over England with Francois Trinh-Duc at the helm at 10, but Michalak’s introduction helped to change the game in England’s favour.
Admittedly, it was a whole raft of substitutions that caused this and not just the arrival of Freddie.
The irony is, if he plays well on Saturday, France could finally begin to click and that previously feared backline could get the scores they had threatened to prior to the start of February.
Scotland have threats in the backline in the form of Lions contenders Start Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser, all of whom have had superb championships.
The problem is that Scotland have failed to produce any tries in their last two games and look to have run out of ideas a little – especially last time out against Wales.
One gets the impression that if France start well, the Dark Blues could be under pressure from 9-15.
The scrum battle in Paris will be one to relish with the best front row in the tournament, France’s, coming up against the tournament’s most improved front row, Scotland’s; it should prove a classic set-piece battle.
Lock Richie Gray’s enforced absence through injury is a major blow for the Scots and might just give France the edge at both scrum and lineout time.
Louis Picamoles has been far and away France’s best performer over the last four games, and he will almost certainly give Philippe Saint-Andre’s side the crucial go-forward ball they need to take the game to Scotland.
Assisted by captain Thierry Dusautoir, Scotland’s back row will have their work cut out to achieve parity in this most crucial of departments.
Alasdair Strokosch, Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie are a fine back row themselves, but one must feel that they will fail to match Les Bleus in the cauldron of a Wooden Spoon decider at Stade de France.
With the hosts gaining a slight edge in the set piece and back row, again the focus will turn to Michalak and whether he can guide France’s possession into points.
If he can deliver then France will win.
If he stutters and underperforms then Scotland will be in the tie.
He may not deliver a seismic performance on Saturday, but Michalak could to just enough to secure two points for his under-pressure coach Saint-Andre.
Prediction: France to win by seven.
France XV to play Scotland: Yoann Huget, Vincent Clerc, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Maxime Medard, Frederic Michalak, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Nicolas Mas, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Yoann Maestri, Antonie Claassen, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Luc Ducalcon, Christophe Samson, Yannick Nyanga, Maxime Machenaud, Francois Trinh-Duc, Florian Fritz or Gael Fickou.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont, Matt Scott, Tim Visser, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw, Johnnie Beattie, Kelly Brown (captain), Alasdair Strokosch, Jim Hamilton, Grant Gilchrist, Euan Murray, Ross Ford, Ryan Grant.
Replacements: Dougie Hall, Moray Low, Geoff Cross, Alastair Kellock, Ryan Wilson, Henry Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson, Max Evans.