Planet Rugby

Preview: France v Scotland

15th March 2013 07:21

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scotland v france

Counter-attacking danger: Stuart Hogg

Even victory over Scotland in Paris on Saturday might not be enough for France to avoid the ignominy of a first wooden spoon since 1999.

France's final position could well rely on the result in Rome earlier in the day. If Italy beat injury-stricken Ireland by a narrow margin - which is quite possible - then France will have to rack up a massive winning margin to avoid finishing below the Irish on points difference. With cold and wet conditions expected in Paris, that seems unlikely.

But Philippe Saint-André's troops will not even be considering those permutations as the task of simply beating the rejuvenated Scots is tough enough in itself to merit their sole attention.

Whatever happens, Scotland have already secured their best finish in the competition since 2006. After a brave fightback to edge Ireland at Murrayfield, coach Scott Johnson feels they "got conned" by the officiating against Wales last week when a win would have kept them in contention for the title.

The truth is, however, that as much as the Scots have improved they haven't done enough to convince anyone that they're genuine title contenders. You'd be hard-pressed to find a pundit who would bet against the hosts in the French capital, where Les Bleus have lost just twice to Scotland in over 40 years. (Scotland's only victory at the Stade de France was in 1999).

All the pressure will be on pre-tournament favourites France, who have been wooden spooners just once since 1969, yet PSA insists his job is not under threat - irrespective of Saturday's result. He's got enough friends in the right places to make sure he stays put, but there is a growing number of French fans who have tired of France's lack of cohesion.

The stats don't paint a pretty picture and suggest that individual talents are being let down by a collective failure to convert opportunities. France have beaten 16.3 defenders per game after four rounds, more than any other side, yet they have scored just four tries.

A number a former French internationals have bemoaned their team's apparent lack of enthusiasm and failure to use the width of the field but they shouldn't expect a free-running display this weekend.

A thick layer of snow over Paris has disrupted the home side' preparations and with heavy rain expected at kick-off, PSA has picked a side with the emphasis on power, not guile.

If the match turns into an arm-wrestle, it could play into Scotland's hands. Unlike their hosts, no questions have been asked over their motivation to pull up their sleeves and bleed for the badge on their chests.

It's more likely to be brutal than pretty in Paris.

Players to watch:

For France: The focal point of criticism from both inside and outside France has been fly-half Frederic Michalak who has retained his starting berth despite a few below-par performances. Saint-André has confirmed that he will continue as France's first-choice goal-kicker. France have the Championships' worst goal-kicking accuracy rate, slotting just 61 percent of their efforts at the posts (Michalak with 8/12 and Morgan Parra with 3/6). Scotland have been the most ill-disciplined side in the tournament, conceding 65 penalties so far, so Michalak should have plenty of chances to be the hero. If he can't find his range, then François Trinh-Duc's ability to take the ball to, and over, the gainline may be needed. 21-year-old New Caledonia-born man mountain Sebastien Vahaamahina, who made an impact when he came on during the second half against Ireland, gets his first start. The setting seems ideal for a big, hard-hitting lock to make his presence felt.

For Scotland: With the weather set to make handling difficult, kicking at goal will be crucial. Scotland have the best goal-kicking accuracy in the championship, converting 83 percent of their shots at goal. Greig Laidlaw is the tournament's second best marksman with 19 from 22 attempts at posts. 22-year-old Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist will win his first cap for Scotland, replacing the injured Richie Gray. Those are big boots to fill. Lots of kicking should give Stuart Hogg plenty of counter-attacking opportunities. Currently sharing the lead in the try-scoring table, his role will be vital for the visitors.

Head-to-head: We're in for a clash between two outstanding back rows. Louis Picamoles is having a standout tournament, leading all comers in terms of metres gained, clean breaks and defenders beaten. Kelly Brown has been the top tackler this campaign with 52 and also leads all others in terms of turnovers won with seven. Thierry Dusautoir has been given the additional responsibility of calling France's line-outs. Antonie Claassen makes his first start while Perpignan's Alasdair Strokosch returns from injury, refreshed a raring to go.

Previous results:
2012: France won 23-17 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2011: France won 34-21 at Stade de France, Paris
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's last Six Nations win came against Scotland - 23-17 at Murrayfield in Round Two last year - making their seven-game winless run their worst in the tournament since 1927. Scotland's only win in their last 16 away games in the Six Nations was at Croke Park back in 2010. We reckon France should be able to turn up the intensity enough to get the job done. France by eight points.

Rugby Union betting odds

The teams:

France: 15 Yoann Huget, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Antonie Claassen, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Christophe Samson, 20 Yannick Nyanga, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Florian Fritz or Gael Fickou.

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Max Evans.

Date: Saturday, 16 March
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 22:00 local (20:00 GMT)
Weather: Cold and very wet. 6°C with heavy rain.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)

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