It’s not nearly the team that we all envisaged having a real chance to break Scotland’s 20-year run of losses in Paris, but head coach Gregor Townsend has a “real belief” in those left to win in the French capital for the first time since 1999.
With the French in a perpetual state of semi-disintegration at present, many observers had this game earmarked for some time as a real chance for a full-strength Scotland to emulate the last Five Nations championship team, for whom Townsend played such a pivotal role.
The litany of wounded has certainly tempered that confidence, with acknowledged first choices Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Huw Jones and WP Nel ruled out in the first four games. Ryan Wilson and Sam Skinner are the two other significant losses since the 2019 championship began.
But the head coach clearly believes he has depth enough to slot back-ups straight in wherever they are needed – even for stars like Hogg and Russell – and expect no real drop in quality.
“We have a squad of players and a way of playing that can put any team under pressure,” he said. “We have a real belief in the group we’ve selected this week, and we’ve also got evidence of players stepping up when they’ve been given that opportunity.
“Blair Kinghorn showed it recently [against Italy]. I remember the November Tests in 2017 when players like Darryl Marfo and Jamie Bhatti were involved for the first time. They stepped up and played really well.
“Byron McGuigan got man-of-the-match against Australia after being called up in the warm-up when Stuart Hogg picked up an injury. We’re expecting the same again from our players this weekend.”
Townsend has been able to filter a few injured prior to the 6 Nations back into the squad, mostly gradually as in the case of Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson – both on the bench tomorrow – but elsewhere in the squad things are more acute and Magnus Bradbury is re-introduced for Paris after just one game following a four-month lay-off.
Bradbury’s performance in that one game last week got him man of the match award, a try and glowing praise from all.
“That was above our expectations, first that he lasted so long, but also his big impacts in the first half and the second half,” explained Townsend. “His work in the kick-chase and defence was excellent. He is straight into the team and we are expecting a similar performance from him.”
This is all true, but the game was against Dragons, the worst of the struggling Welsh regions. France, even a French team that doesn’t seem to know what direction it’s supposed to be going in, is something else entirely.
But with the numbers out of commission in the back row and Bradbury being such an impressive physical force, there was no real option but to pick him.
The option to play Pete Horne at stand-off in place of the concussed Finn Russell, preferred to Adam Hastings, seems to have been based on the mere fact that Horne has had more time in the saddle than his Warriors clubmate – mostly because Dave Rennie picked Horne at 10 ahead of Hastings for last week’s Glasgow game in Cardiff.
Horne did pilot the Scots impressively in Russell’s place after the stand-off suffered a shoulder injury in the fixture three years ago, but he’s been very much a 12 in recent times, especially with Hastings emergence the last two seasons.
Outside him, Sam Johnson stays at 12 where he has impressed in two outings and Nick Grigg, who so often brings a huge cutting edge to the Glasgow attacking game, gets his seventh cap at 13 in place of Jones.
However Scotland now have a fairly diminutive midfield in modern rugby terms. Grigg in particular, at 5 foot 7 and a bit and listed generously at 14 stone, is directly up against the huge Mathieu Bastareaud, at 6 feet and 18 and a half stones.
But again, Townsend’s three main attacking weapons in recent times, Russell, Hogg and Jones, are gone. Kinghorn is a gifted and dangerous runner, and perhaps Grigg can bring what he so often does for Glasgow and has yet to really do for Scotland, in admittedly limited opportunities.
Elsewhere Scotland’s bench looks a little more assuring than it did against Ireland, with Alex Allan a mobile loose head back up and Fagerson restored. The two backs on the bench have very little experience, but Hastings and Darcy Graham are both probably going to the World Cup and need to savour this kind of atmosphere.
France seem to be in some state, but as Townsend pointed out, they’re a bit like Scotland – they play far better at home on the dodgy, cut-up turf of the Stade de France.
“They should have beaten Ireland (last year) and they did beat England. Arguably they should have beaten Wales after being 16-0 up this year.
“They love reacting to difficult circumstances, to challenges and they will come out all guns blazing. They have gone for a more mobile pack and players in the backline who are fearless, who will be ambitious and who will take the game to us.
“Remember in 2011 the players had stopped talking to the coach, and they probably should have won the World Cup that year. That is what we can expect from a French team that is written off and under pressure.”
Scotland team: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne, capt); A Dell (Edinburgh Rugby), S McInally (Edinburgh Rugby), S Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); M Bradbury (Edinburgh Rugby), J Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh Rugby).