By Tadhg Peavoy
Scotland v France, Murrayfield, 5pm
Clashes with France have been bleak encounters for Scotland in recent years. Since 1995, the Dark Blues have recorded just four victories against the electric blues of continental Europe.
Since the advent of the Six Nations, things have been even worse for the Scots in this clash, with just one victory chalked up beside their name, back in 2006, when they triumphed 20-16 at Murrayfield.
In stark numerics, since the turn of the Millennium, France have won 14 battles, Scotland just a solitary one.
But with Louis Picamoles dropped by France head coach Philippe Saint-André for mocking referee Alain Rolland after being sent to the sin-bin in Les Bleus’ defeat to Wales, and Wesley Fofana (broken rib) and Dimitri Szarzewski (ankle) both ruled out due to injury, Scotland now face a France side shorn of their three best performers in the 2014 championship thus far.
Add to that Morgan Parra’s absence due to suspension for head-butting Rene Ranger when playing for Clermont against Montpellier in the Top 14, and Benjamin Kayser’s absence with a knee injury, and things begin to lot rosier for Scotland.
Another crucial - and obvious - factor is that the Scots are at home. Playing at Stade de France gives France a huge mental lift, as evidenced by their recent victories over England and Italy. Away from home, much like their club sides, they are often brittle in defence and brittle mentally, while their morale can evaporate easily when behind in a clash.
Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson has made widespread changes to his team to face France. He brings back deposed captain Kelly Brown at openside flanker. Geoff Cross also comes into the side at tighthead.
David Denton is recalled at number eight, with Johnny Beattie moving to blindside to accommodate him.
Moray Low misses out totally, with Euan Murray the replacement tighthead. Ryan Wilson drops to the bench as the replacement back row cover.
With the backline the same following Scotland’s dramatic and last-gasp 21-20 victory over Italy in Rome, this looks on paper to be the best side the Scots have fielded in the championship thus far.
With Denton and Brown in the again, Scotland should perform far better in the back row, providing far better ball-winning ability as missiles at the breakdown, and also as carriers in the loose.
Cross and Murray are Scotland’s two best tightheads, having them both included is a major boost at scrum time for the Dark Blues.
In the backs, Scotland’s second half performance against Italy showed what they are capable of: tries.
They finally looked sharp and played with depth across the division. But, we have seen one-off performances like that from their backs before, they need to add far more consistency in attack, and put together a string of performances where they are dangerous to the opposition’s whitewash before a swallow can be called a summer.
France were nothing short of appalling in defeat to Wales in their last outing. Shapeless, boring, dull, uninspired, devoid of ideas, scared to play and un-French were all labels attached to Saint-André’s team. And that under-fire head coach has made seven changes to his side as he attempts to turn things around.
However, unlike Scotland’s changes, on paper, France seem to be weakened by the new faces.
The back row in particular looks weakened: Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Wenceslas Laurent are out; Sebastien Vahaamahina, Alexandre Lapandry and Damien Chouly are in.
Brice Mach comes in for Szarzewski at hooker.
Out back, Maxime Mermoz comes in for injured Fofana. Maxime Machenaud replaces Jean-Marc Doussain at scrumhalf.
There’s also a lot of movement on the bench, with Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Alexandre Flanquart and Antonie Claassen all coming into the 23.
The truth is that’s it’s very hard to know what one is going to get with any group of Frenchmen under Saint-André’s stewardship. In their three outings in 2014, they have been very good against England, average against Italy and extremely poor against Wales.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they will return to form in Edinburgh and drub the Scots, before heading into the final weekend looking to beat Ireland and win the championship.
Similarly, Scotland have been okay against Ireland, so bad against England they embarrassed themselves and decent against Italy.
When the two most schizophrenic teams in the competition meet it’s a head scratcher trying to say with authority what might transpire.
For France to win, they need to find the aggression they played with in the pack against England, and marry it to the flair they showed at the death of that game, and just after half-time against Italy. In those two periods combined they scored four tries and looked world beaters, picking great angles and support lines, and executing skills at their optimum.
All of that was missing against Wales as they delivered one of the worst French performances in recent years.
Their play was fractured and scattered and lacked a cohesive game plan, or, indeed, the passion needed to take on a side of Wales’ capabilities.
France often display the best link play and creativity in the championship, and in Yoann Huget and Mathieu Bastareaud – although the latter is much criticised – they do have players that can change games with moments of brilliance or sheer strength.
If those players, find their form, and the new halfback pairing of Maxime Machenaud and Jules Plisson gels, France will be very dangerous.
The French pack also need to perform much better to give their backs a platform to shine. Against Wales they lost two scrums and a lineout. They were also outdone in turnovers when they lost eight and won only six. Those small margins made a huge difference in Cardiff.
Beyond that France only had an 88% tackle completion rate and missed nine tackles in total. If France are to win, all of this has to improve.
Scotland’s challenge is to make sure they fail to improve. Up front the Scottish pack must damage France in the scrum like Wales did, taking away that platform, which France use so well.
Similarly at the lineout disruption is the order of the day, preventing the France team getting into their stride. There is so much change in the France pack and its replacements that Scotland very much have grounds to believe they can stop the eight and the five replacements getting up a head of steam.
Scotland’s second half display against Italy was decent and they deservedly won that game on the basis of it. But the likelihood is they will need to play like that for 80 minutes, and probably be even better to beat France.
Italy’s tendency to give the ball away far too easily cost them against Scotland and led directly to Alex Dunbar’s two crucial tries; in addition, Italy’s defending for both tries was woeful.
France might be as generous, and if they are Scotland will do damage. However, if France up their game to the levels they are capable of, they should keep their championship bid on track with a win in Edinburgh.
Verdict: France to win by 12.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar, M Scott, S Lamont; D Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, S Lawson, G Cross, R Gray, J Hamilton, J Beattie, K Brown (capt), D Denton.
Replacements: R Ford, A Dickinson, E Murray, T Swinson, R Wilson, C Cusiter, D Taylor, M Evans.
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, M Medard; J Plisson, M Machenaud; T Domingo, B Mach, N Mas; P Pape (Captain), Y Maestri; S Vahaamahina, A Lapandry, D Chouly.
Replacements: G Guirado, V Debaty, R Slimani, A Flanquart, A Claassen, J-M Doussain, R Tales, G Fickou.