Defending champions France start their Six Nations campaign against Scotland on Saturday under a cloud of uncertainty.
Defending champions France start their Six Nations campaign against Scotland on Saturday under a cloud of questions and uncertainty.
Scotland travel to Paris in search of their first victory in the French capital since the turn of the century (their last win in the City of Lights dates back to 1999 when France back's coach Ã‰mile Ntamack started at full-back). In fact the Scots have beaten les Bleus,in France, just twice in the last 42 years.
Needless to say, with that record in mind, a Scottish victory on Saturday will be considered a massive upset despite their solid recent form (five wins in their last six games).
The focus really is on France and everyone in the rugby world is intrigued as to how they will perform. On paper, Marc LiÃ¨vremont has a playing staff at his disposal that are rightly considered outside contenders for the World Cup. But, as the last six or seven months have show, a list of big names on paper does not automatically mean results on grass.
LiÃ¨vremont has been the first to admit that his side has taken a step, probably more like a couple of steps, backwards since they claimed the Grand Slam a year ago.
Questionable levels of motivation on tour and poor communication on both the playing and training fields have been blamed for the disasters of June and November.
In reaction, the French coach spent two months compiling a 'guide book' outlining each of France's set piece moves, player movements in broken play, defensive positions and strategies, line-out calls, attacking formations etc etc. Everything they need to know in one handy booklet to be revisited and revised in their own time. Wouldn't Andy Robinson jut love to get his hands on one of those little vessels of information!
Some players have joked about “doing their homework” in their rooms at night but all have agreed that it has helped. 'Clarity' has been the operative word.
But all the condensed information in the world won't create the kind of cohesive attacking unit that game time together will. Yet that hasn't stopped LiÃ¨vremont from picking an all-new mid-field combination. Again.
It also hasn't stopped him from selecting Damien Traille at full-back. The Biarrot was fly-half in November, has played centre for his club since, yet he gets picked at 15.
We won't beat the selection consistency drum too much (we've been playing the same tune for two years) since the spirit inside the French camp is better than it's been for a long time, or so we're led to believe. If the Tricolors truly have sorted out their behind-the-scenes issues, we can't see them losing.
As for the visitors, the talk coming out of the Scottish camp has revolved around maintaining the momentum built over the least few months. A nightmare against the All Blacks aside, the Scots have enjoyed a rare run of success that makes them truly believe an upset is possible.
For all the talk about the potential of the French backs, Scotland must first front up to one of the best packs around. The hosts' scrum has crunched everything that has been put before them in recent memory and if the Scots can't match their power it will matter far less how often the ball makes it out to the wings. Fortunately for Scotland the front row has been a strength, so we're set for a ding-dong battle.
Players to watch:
For France: Six months ago, it was near unthinkable that anyone other than Yannick Jauzion would wear the number 12 jersey for France but Maxime Mermoz will start at inside centre on Saturday. LiÃ¨vremont has admitted that dropping the Jauzion was incredibly difficult but feels that Mermoz is in the form of his life and couldn't be left out. With time running out before the French coach must decide on his best XV, if Mermoz doesn't live up to expectations then recalling Jauzion would be an easy choice. No pressure then…
For Scotland: London Irish-bound Northampton centre Joe Ansbro will be making his first Six Nations start against a very experienced campaigner in AurÃ©lien Rougerie. Ansbro has never lost in a Scotland jersey after a winning debut against South Africa in the rain when it wasn't really possible to do much so a trip to a dry track in Paris will be an acid test of whether he was what it takes at international level. So far, all the signs are good…
Head-to-head: While the French backs have come under fire for under-performing the same cannot be said of the back-row. Likewise, the Scotland loose trio have been key to their success of late. But we won't see the 'Killer Bs' in action since Nathan Hines has moved back a row to fill in for Johnnie Beattie, who is still working his way back to top form after an injury layoff. Hines knows the French better than most after his days at Perpignan but are his legs young enough to keep up? It's hard to imagine a harder-hitting combo than Harinordoquy – Bonnaire – Dusautoir. This one's not for the faint-hearted.
2010: France won 18-9 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2009: France won 22-13 at Stade de France, Paris
2008: France won 27-6 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2007: France won 46-19 at Stade de France, Paris
2006: Scotland won 20-16 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2005: France won 16-9 at Stade de France, Paris
2004: France won 31-0 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2003: France won 51-9 at Stadium Australia, Sydney (RWC)
2003: France won 38-3 at Stade de France, Paris
2002: France won 22-10 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2001: France won 16-6 at Stade de France, Paris
2000: France won 28-16 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Prediction: France must be favourites but considering Scotland's good form, the hosts are unlikely to run away with it. France by ten points
France: 15 Damien Traille, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Maxime Medard, 10 Francois Thrinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Luc Ducalcon, 18 Jerome Thion, 19 Sebastien Chabal, 20 Dimitri Yachvili, 21 Clement Poitrenaud, 22 Vincent Clerc.
Scotland: 15 Hugo Southwell , 14 Nikki Walker, 13 Joe Ansbro, 12 Nick De Luca, 11 Max Evans, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Rory Lawson, 8 Kelly Brown, 7 John Barclay, 6 Nathan Hines, 5 Alastair Kellock (c), 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray,2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Moray Low, 18 Richie Vernon, 19 Ross Rennie, 20 Mike Blair, 21 Ruaridh Jackson, 22 Sean Lamont.
Date: Saturday, 5 February
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Weather: 11Â°C. No rain. Moderate SW wind.
Kick-off: 19:00 (17:00 GMT)