Mike Blair today pledged to ensure Scotland odd-man-out Rory Lamont will finally get his win over French opposition this season when Les Tricolours visit Murrayfield on Sunday in the latest round of the RBS Six Nations Championship.
Underlining the fact that the Scots have no need for an inferiority complex even against these World Cup finalists, every member of the starting line-up barring Lamont has tasted success against opponents from over the channel at European Cup level.
Blair, who on his 78th appearance will overtake both Nathan Hines and Jason White to become Scotland’s fourth-most capped player behind Chris Paterson, Scott Murray and Gregor Townsend, declared: “We’ll do it for Rory!”
A less-appealing statistic concerns the fact that only two members of the starting line-up have tasted victory in the fixture which last occurred back in 2006. They are Sean Lamont, a two-try hero that day, and Blair, who replaces Chris Cusiter at scrum half.
“Just as when we beat France the last time key will be on moving their pack, with its big front five, around the pitch. The encouraging thing to emerge from when we played Wales last time was that of 19 attempted offloads from the tackle we completed 18 of them so there is the capability to up the intensity.
“The cancellation of the match with Ireland at Stade de France a fortnight ago means France will have gone three weeks without any action. Maybe there could be some rustiness in their ranks but we are well aware, of course, just what of a threat France pose all down the line. Winger Vincent Clerc has proved himself a try scorer for club and country and we know they have a couple of big ball carriers in Picamoles and Harinorduqoy up front.
“Fofana and Rougerie are going to be looking to come through the middle very hard and in Morgan Parra they have a general at scrum half. I was surprised to learn that he is still only 23 having been on the scene for a while now.”
Blair feels he has developed over the last year through a club partnership with Greig Laidlaw. It will be the first time the duo have started for Scotland, however, and Blair says: “I am really enjoying the fact that either Greig or I can move in and clear the ball away while the other acts as receiver. I feel that has refreshed my game and after coming off the bench so far in this championship I hope to provide from the start the type of spark I tried to contribute on impact in the last two matches.
“With myself, Cus (Chris Cusiter) and Rory (Lawson) contesting scrum half you know that any chance that comes along has to be taken.
“I don’t think it is a different mindset starting. I’ll be trying to bring an upbeat tempo so that the openings that were being created towards the end of our last two matches are there from the start.”
Subs Scott Lawson, Al Kellock and Cusiter were also part of the last Scottish team to beat France and this latest construction from coach Andy Robinson appears to have been made with additional directness in mind to solve a try famine that becomes ever more concerning albeit Laidlaw did get across the whitewash in Wales to end a long barren spell.
Some have suggested this week that try scoring has been a Scots’ problem for a while but a scan of the record books suggests it is a declining trait rather than a constant. For example, during Matt Williams’ reign as coach Scotland scored 35 tries in 17 matches, albeit 15 came in a 100-7 rout of Japan.
Against that three tries were scored in a single match against Wales and England.
Moving forward, Frank Hadden’s 40-match reign saw the Scots score 72 tries albeit only once scoring as many as three in a Six Nations outing.
Lagging behind is the Robinson era which has, so far, yielded 20 touchdowns from 26 matches and, were four-try bonus points available, that increment would only have occurred in the World Cup match against Romania last Autumn. And, putting the whole issue into stark perspective is France winger Vincent Clerc who has notched 32 international tries compared with the entire Scottish team’s aggregate of 30.
For the record, France have a combined tally of 119. Little wonder then that coach Robinson this week told the Evening News: “It’s about being able to keep the ball, one of the key things for us is that we have been able to keep the ball.
“You have to stop them scoring. We have got to get into their faces to do that.”
Responding to a suggestion that the ability of French centres Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana to chase and harry under the high ball might have influenced his midfield choice, Robinson said of the new Sean Lamont/Graeme Morrison combination: “We expect them to play an aerial game and test our guys. It’s important what we do when the ball is in the air.”
What must have pleased Robinson at this week’s team announcement was the way the inclusion of Lee Jones and Dave Denton, with four starts between them, appeared taken as read. Despite such inexperience the pair never rated as a mention in questioning until their presence was raised by Robinson himself.
“I’m pleased with the way they have been playing and now it’s about getting Lee Jones into a bit more space,” he said.
On the face of it statistics do confirm Scotland get the ball through the hands with a total of 254 passes completed against Wales – more than any other team in action. Against that could it be that because Scotland were making such little ground the ball was having to be transferred frequently over short distances?
At least the Scots also made fewest errors (eight) last time and, while the suspicion is they will have to improve on that figure, equally there appears to be a capability to put France on the back foot if the forwards continue to generate possession.
Encouragement can surely be taken from the fact that the highly respected “Planet Rugby” website included hooker Ross Ford and second row Richie Gray in their “team of round two,” while there was recognition for Stuart Hogg on his debut from off the bench.
It will surely do Hogg no harm, as he prepares for a first start tomorrow to reflect on this citation which refers to a disallowed ‘try’: “Replays showed that Hogg had not spilled the ball en route to the line, which would have made for a perfect individual bow.”
Among those least surprised by Hogg’s emergence is Bob McKillop who is currently taking a break from coaching but helped develop the Hawick-reared youngster for a season at Heriot’s. As far back as October 2010 McKillop declared: “You look to the future and see Ruaridh Jackson getting competition from Duncan (Weir), Gregor (Hunter), and Stuart Hogg. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen as much talent in their late teens.”
Hogg is still in his teens and McKillop added: “Stuart did impress me at Heriot’s . . . a very competitive nature . . . a confident young individual. He really impressed me in the subsequent year when he was back at Hawick . . . his footwork was always good and he is a lot stronger than his frame would suggest. Even then his kicking was of a very, very high standard.
“At that time Stuart, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, and Duncan Weir were all dominating games in Premier Division One rather than just participating. These same youngsters are now flourishing in the professional game.”
Hogg will hopefully give a glimpse of the bright future being predicted but only if the Scottish forwards can turn up the heat in front of Murrayfield’s first sell-out crowd on a Sunday apart from the visits of England.