France will try to force errors and Scotland have to respond flawlessly if they want the win on Sunday that will define their 2020 Guinness Six Nations campaign, believes head coach Gregor Townsend.
Townsend has made three changes to the pack from the team that beat Italy 15-0 in Rome, subtle changes to add a little more power and experience with Grant Gilchrist, a little more defence and ball-hawking with Fraser Brown, and more open-field threat from Nick Haining in the back row.
On the bench, Duncan Weir makes his first appearance in a Townsend matchday squad – his last appearance was Vern Cotter’s final game against Italy three years ago, Sam Skinner returns and Kyle Steyn, the versatile Glasgow wing/centre, is in line for his first cap.
The Scots have a little spring in their step from their first win, but France are flying from three from three, le Grand Chelem just two more wins away, and a “revolution” in their play and attitude under new head coach Fabien Galthie.
“The expectation around France has always been really high from other teams because of what they’ve been doing at Under-20 level, with back-to-back World Cups,” said Townsend. “Their Top 14 has got some fantastic players playing week-in and week-out.
“For rival coaches, it was probably a matter of when they would reproduce that at Test level, and we are starting to see that now.”
Townsend thinks France are a completely different team under Galthie – an old sparring partner at international and club level – to the one Scotland played three times in 2019 but despite appearances he doesn’t think they’ve completely embraced the kick-heavy, pragmatic style that took South Africa to win the World Cup.
“They’re still a mix of styles,” he said. “Most teams are based on where their strengths are and France are looking to their defence.
“They have a defence coach (Shaun Edwards) who’s got a pretty good record at Test level and they seem to be thriving on his coaching. Fabien Galthie’s overall philosophy means you’re going to have less ball than the opposition but you can get it back through the way you chase kicks and force turnovers.
“No team is as dangerous as the French off turnover ball so we have to be smart in how we play, patient at times, but accurate throughout the 80 minutes.”
Scotland have the best defence bar none in the championship so far this year, with just two tries conceded in three games, but so any changes to the team from Rome were likely to feature on this. Haining in for Magnus Bradbury – solid if not outstanding in his two starts – is the one surprise in this regard.
“Nick came in and did a very good job for us in Dublin on his first cap, then Magnus – who had played very well for us in the past, most notably at the World Cup – started the next two games.
“But we gave Nick some feedback on what more we want from him and the two games since with Edinburgh (he’s played at 6 in both games) he has shown that he has taken that on board.
“His work-rate has gone up in both attack and defence. The more he plays, the better he looks, so we fell he is right the right call for this game.
“France have kicked a lot in the first two games so you have a picture of how you expect them to play, and Nick started off as a back-line player so is very comfortable in the back-field. That is one strength we believe he can show at the weekend.”
Scotland are underdogs, even at home, believes Townsend, although many think that this is a potential banana-skin for the young French team eyeing a Slam.
“I would have thought we were underdogs,” he said. “It may focus the minds more knowing that the team we are playing have won three on the bounce and beaten some very good teams including Wales away from home in Cardiff, which is a very tough place to play.
“They showed resilience and fight to win that game, so they’ll be ready to play for 80 minutes against us. What they also showed is that if the opposition make any errors, whether that is through kicking or passing, then they will finish them off.”
Weir – the lead stand-off for Scotland until Finn Russell emerged – is on the bench because the weather’s not forecast to be great and Townsend wants an experienced back-up.
“He’s a passionate Scot who’s proud to play for his country, and he’s been unfortunate a couple of times with the rise of Adam coming through in the last couple of seasons, added Townsend. “There were parts of his game that are we’ve needed to see more of for him to come back into a Test environment and he’s shown that for Worcester.
“He’s really well-liked and respected in the squad. He’s not the biggest guy in our back line but he punches his weight in defence. He’s really fit so last year he was getting a few tries through support lines and just being there at the right time.
“We know that we’ll have different stand-offs, one starting and one on the bench so that if we do have to change the game and Dunky has to come on, he’ll be able to execute that really well.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, capt); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Nick Haining (Edinburgh).
Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Allan Dell (London Irish), WP Nel (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Magnus Bardbury (Edinburgh), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Worcester Warriors), Kyle Steyn (Glasgow Warriors).