It’s fair to say that Richie Gray made a big impact the first time he played in Paris.
It was ten years ago this month and Gray was just 21, one year removed from his Scotland debut, also against France.
Midway through the first half of an entertaining contest France eventually won 34-21, the 6 foot 9 inch lock went on the charge. He went through tackles on a 15-metre rumble and the usually partisan Stade de France crowd roared their approval.
‘Si blond, si bon’
The daily bible of French sport, L’Equipe, was gushing the following day. “Si blond, si bon” (so blond, so good) blared the headline on a story about the then-bleached Gray.
Jeremy Guscott, then as now a contentious BBC analyst, had a different view prior to that game, calling Gray “slow, cumbersome and like Bambi on ice”. Instead it was the game that really launched a distinguished career over the next decade, for Scotland, the Lions and French giants Toulouse.
“Personally it was a big game but I would have liked it more if we had won,” recalled Gray as he prepared to go back to the Stade with Scotland this weekend. “I gained a lot of confidence from it and thought that I could play at Test level.
Appetite after a three-year gap
“The appetite has always been there,” he continued, reflecting on a return to the Scotland set-up after a three-year gap.
“A lot of the personnel has changed, but there is a calmness around the squad now. Everybody is aware, confident of their own abilities and looking to have a good time, improving and enjoying the environment.
“When I got back into the squad my feeling has grown and grown, and now I want more and more. I don’t look so much at age but more that I have not played for the national team for three years.
“Things can change very quickly. It is a cliché, but I play every game as if it is my last.”
France have ‘depth and talent’
As for France, Gray knows all about the players called in to plug the gaps caused by Covid-19 infections, having played in the Top 14 only last year.
But he’s not sure who France will miss the most, former Toulouse team-mate Antoine Dupont or their skipper Charles Ollivon.
“That is a tough one,” he said. “You have Dupont who is one of the best nines in the world who is so dangerous around the ruck and can break from nothing. Whereas Ollivon is the captain and the line out leader. A lot goes through him so we will just have to wait and see.
“But they have such depth and such talent. They are able to bring in guys who are equally as good. They back up Dupont with (Baptiste) Serin and (Sebastien) Bezy who are top quality nines.
“I don’t think it will affect them too much. They are a strong team and a strong squad.
“France have struck a really good balance under Fabien Galthie. They play smart rugby and get out of their half really well.
“They are quite structured now but within that structure they have their X factor players who are able to do it on the big moments. The balance is really good between structure and using players’ abilities to their best.”
The best opportunity in 21 years?
The fact France have players missing doesn’t make it any more of an opportunity in Paris for Scotland than it already was, believes Gray.
“It would be an opportunity even if they didn’t have players missing,” he said. “It’s a few years since we won there – 1999 was the last time – so it’s a great opportunity to go over there and produce a performance.
“We certainly have the talent in the squad to do it, but it will be a really tough encounter. We have to be at our best to win.”