France v Scotland: Memories of 1999 stir hope for Gregor Townsend in Paris
The last time Scotland beat France in Paris they played with such breathtaking fluidity that they scored five first-half tries in a 36-22 victory that takes its place in the pantheon of great Scottish performances.
Gregor Townsend was instrumental in the win of 22 years ago, scoring a try as he did in every match of the triumphant 1999 Five Nations campaign.
The Scotland coach thinks the way the team clicked that day can be attributed partly to the fact that it was their final match of the Championship and there was a familiarity amongst the players which allowed them to express themselves to such devastating effect.
Townsend is hoping for a similar sense of synchronicity when his Scotland side return to Paris on Friday night seeking a second place finish which would be their highest since ’99.
“It was one of those amazing games where everything just comes right,” Townsend recalled as he unveiled his team for the match at the Stade de France.
“The fact that it was the last game of the season was, I felt, very important to that happening. We’d built a lot of connections. I remember the training that week, the players were leading it, and we felt really confident and cohesive.
“So, having the last game of the season should help us now. I know it’s been a different type of season for us, but we can now throw everything out there that we’ve worked on this year. The confidence that we got from that game last week should help us to approach this one.”
Last weekend’s record win over Italy was as ruthless a performance as one could have wished for but it was not enough to keep try-scorers Dave Cherry, Huw Jones and Scott Steele in the side. All three drop to the bench as Townsend reverts to the players who played in the opening three matches.
Cherry, who scored a brace and did little wrong, is replaced at hooker by George Turner who impressed against England and Wales but struggled with his throwing-in against Ireland. Jones, who followed up his try-scoring cameo against the Irish with another score against Italy, gives way to the more defensively robust Chris Harris at outside centre.
Ali Price returns at scrum-half in preference to Steele who fared well on his first Test start.
“We were very pleased with the performances of the guys who got opportunities last week whether that was Dave Cherry, Scott Steele, Huw Jones and we took that into consideration, of course we did, most recent form is important, but we also take into consideration how the others have played this season and beyond that,” said Townsend.
“In George’s case he was one of our best players down in England. He had one game where he didn’t perhaps play as his best, but he is a great asset to the team.
“And Chris Harris, I thought he was outstanding against Wales and then the following week for Gloucester I thought he was the best player on the field, so we have got competition now.”
The other personnel change is the return of Finn Russell. The Racing 92 stand-off has recovered from a head knock and Townsend believes he will relish the opportunity to take on France in his adopted home city.
“It’s an important game for Finn. I’m sure this is the game he looks forward to more than any other.
“I’m sure he’s just itching to get back out there and lead this team. There will be opportunities that present themselves. As long as we’re connected around him, we should be able to take them.”
Russell’s recovery allows captain Stuart Hogg to return to full-back after filling in at 10 against Italy. Sean Maitland, who played at 15 last Saturday, is the well publicised major casualty of the limit on the number of the English-based players Scotland can select.
Despite the apparent unfairness of the agreement which means that only five from south of the border are in the squad, Townsend says he will not use it as motivation.
“There are so many other things we can touch on this week: our last game together; a chance to finish in our highest position in the Six Nations; a chance to spoil France’s party; a chance to get an away win. There’s a lot of things I can touch on so I don’t think injustice will come into it.
“The group feel really disappointed for those who couldn’t get selected this week, but like players who get injured, you move on with the group that’s here and that we’ll take out to France.”
Scotland need to win by more than eight points to finish second and by more than five to finish third. France are going for the title but require a bonus-point victory by a margin of at least 21 points to overhaul Wales at the top.
It has all the ingredients of a classic, and Townsend has called on his players to show the sort of form that left England in such a sorry state on the opening weekend of the tournament.
“If we’re able to replicate our performance form Twickenham, we’ll certainly be in with a shout of winning the game. That was the best I’ve seen us play,” said the coach.
“How we matched England up front will be very relevant to our chances of success against the French pack.
“France could go out and open up their game. They have played some really good attacking rugby – but it’s based on a long kicking game and solid defence.
“Our defence should be as concerned as it should be excited about getting the ball back.
“We’ve shown that we can play very well away from home. We’ve played France a couple of times in the past 12 months and they’ve both been close games.
“I would hope they would know we’ll be a tough opponent for them.”