Sean Lamont aims to keep winning run going

Scotland back Sean Lamont. Pic: Ian Georgeson
Scotland back Sean Lamont. Pic: Ian Georgeson
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What face will France present at Murrayfield tomorrow when the Six Nations rugby championship rolls into its penultimate round?

They shaped as potential champions when England were seen off with a stirring second half rally on the opening weekend, but then plumbed the depths in Wales last time.

And with an erratic win over Italy in between, the roller-coaster campaign has been dramatic and controversial.

Are France, then, in disarray and more interested in domestic matters, as some suggest?

A seven-change line-up suggests coach Philippe St Andre has had enough of general indiscipline and is close to starting again with his build-up to next year’s World Cup.

If so, Scotland will be hoping to capitalise and post what would be only their second victory over Les Bleues since the Six Nations tournament arrived in 2000 and the first since 2006.

Sean Lamont, the only survivor of the home starting team that day, is set to win his 86th appearance and overtake Mike Blair and become Scotland’s third most-capped player behind Chris Paterson and Scott Murray.

It was Lamont’s two tries – one from the back of a driving maul – that provided the basis of that previous win and his experience tells him about the housekeeping that needs to be done if his side are to have any chance of building on their win over Italy in Rome a fortnight ago.

For starters, the Scots have conceded the most penalties – 38 – of all teams in this championship. Defence will need to be watertight, too, with 1992 the last occasion France failed to notch a touchdown in a match with Scotland, who have now gone 251 minutes since scoring a try at home in the Championship (by Lamont, incidentally, against Italy last year). If the blanks at home to Australia and South Africa are added in, that statistic becomes even bleaker.

Lamont also knows that it was failing to register a point against England last month for the first time since 1978 that created a furore.

Lamont: “We actually lost by a bigger margin at Twickenham last year, but the fact we got nilled was troubling. The biggest issue was there didn’t seem to be the passion [against England], but I can tell you it is what we live off. If we have anything, that is what we have. So we went back and looked at what we were doing wrong, picked it up for the Italy game and got a win that should increase confidence a bit.

“Obviously, there is some pressure off, but one win doesn’t make a Six Nations. We need to back it up with a win this weekend and maybe against Wales next week. We need to do more than beat Italy every year ... striving to get that second, third win. Then maybe we can start challenging for a fourth and fifth win – the grand slam stuff.

“Beating Italy took pressure off. Not totally, but you could see the relief at squeaking a win after putting so much effort in.

“If we can match France physically, keep ball and cut out penalties, that will go a long way to backing up what we did in Rome. We do have the talent, boys are coming into form like Matt Scott and Eck Dunbar.

“The forwards have thrown themselves around, too, and although it doesn’t always go right in Italy, we were 100 per cent on our line-outs. It was a massive improvement. France have a big pack who will come at us in the forwards, the scrum, the line-out as well.

“They love the driving maul; they have the big hard carriers, the finesse players, the speed players. They got lucky against England, but the reason they got beaten by Wales is that Wales put pressure on them with little things like kicking through into the right area and applying good pressure with the kick chase.

“Last year flattered us a bit when we beat Italy well and stole a win against Ireland. A couple of other results helped us, too, and while it was nice to finish where we did, we have to keep building and improving.

“Italy was by no means a clinical performance and there were still plenty of errors, plenty of things to work on.

“Provided we get as much improvement from the Italy game going forward as we did from England, we are going in the right direction.”

Cautious optimism is also the theme from recalled back-rower Dave Denton, who said: “It’s crazy how quickly things can change. If Dunky (Weir’s) drop goal had slipped to the right of the posts it could have been panic stations.

“It’s important for us to remember that.”

Denton came off the bench to help seal the win based on that last-gasp three-pointer and was in the dressing room to hear coaches spell out the need “not to feel the pressure the country was telling us there was”.

He added: “It took me back to my first Six Nations two years ago when we went our there to Italy and retreated into our shells. We lost.” Since then, he says, Scotland have developed more depth. “If there is one luxury we have got in this team it is the depth in the back row.

“For someone like Al Strokosch not to be involved shows the depth we have got.”

Indeed, key tomorrow could be the way the Scots vary the back-row combinations whom many will see as three No. 8s, regardless of what interim coach Scott Johnson says about captain Kelly Brown only 
being considered at open-side flanker.

“Different players operating off the line-out tail, on the scrum pick-up etc, could keep the French guessing and while they are two No. 8s short of the side which fielded five and ran the Welsh off their feet to win 20-0 in 1993 there is a 
physicality and pace about the combination that can be a cornerstone.

Denton is actually one of two players in the starting line-up still to register a try in Scotland’s cause but full-back Stuart Hogg remembers scoring after just eight minutes of his initial international start when France visited two years ago.

“I’ve matured as a player and learned a helluva lot along the way,” said Hogg. “Against France, though, you don’t know what is going to happen. You have to be on the ball and expect the unexpected. France are capable of anything. It was a great feeling against the Italians, a feeling we want to remember. It was a feeling we want every game.

“The good thing is we are reacting to our mistakes and it is not about scoring every time you get the ball. It might be your break that leads to somebody else scoring.

“We are not going to be world beaters by beating the Italians but a win against the French and we will start going in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

This Scotland team register as equally paradoxical but Dave Denton knows what he wants. That’s a win, to get across the gain-line with his devastating ball carrying and a first Test try.

“From a personal point of view it would be nice to score a try at Murrayfield and find out what that feels like,” he said.

Laying this Scotland team’s Murrayfield try bogey to rest would be a start in terms of lightening the general mood around Scottish rugby.

At the moment the jury is still very much out as to whether Rome saw the start of a revival or merely a stay of execution for some attached to this squad.