Not a proper game if we play France without our best players - Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend fears the integrity of the Six Nations Championship could be compromised if Scotland are forced to take on France without their contingent of English and French-based players.
A new date for the match has still to be announced, with discussions around player release understood to be the sticking point.
The game was due to be played in Paris on February 28 but was postponed three days beforehand because of an outbreak of Covid-19 in the French camp.
Scotland will return to Six Nations action against Ireland on Sunday following a frustrating month of inaction since their home defeat by Wales. It is likely to be the start of a run of three games in under three weeks which will make or break their title chances.
Townsend’s side host Italy on March 20 and the Scotland coach is hoping the France game can be slotted in on Friday, March 26.
“I know that’s the day which will be acceptable to everyone – French rugby, Scottish rugby, Six Nations and the broadcasters – but there are still discussions about player release which are ongoing,” Townsend said.
“And obviously for the tournament to have a proper game you need to have everybody available for that game from the clubs, and a number of our squad play in England and France, so we hope [it will be the 26th], and the Six Nations are working towards getting a solution where all our players are available for selection, just like the French.”
The problem is that March 26 falls outside the international window and clubs in the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 would be under no obligation to release their players.
There is a strong sense within the Scotland camp that they must not be punished for the postponement.
Coronavirus spread through Fabien Galthie’s squad, infecting a dozen players and a string of backroom staff. Galthie himself was among those to test positive, and the France coach was later forced to admit he had left the team’s bubble to watch his son play rugby.
The revelation that a number of players also broke Covid protocols when they left the team hotel to go out for waffles while in Rome for the opening match against Italy sparked further criticism.
Townsend said the decision on a new date would likely rest on negotiations between Six Nations organisers and PRL, the umbrella group which represents England’s top clubs.
“It’s not going to be my decision on this,” said the Scotland coach. “For a tournament of the standing of the Six Nations you need the best players playing against the best available.”
A number of Scotland players are based in England including captain Stuart Hogg, his Exeter team-mate Jonny Gray, Saracens winger Sean Maitland and Gloucester centre Chris Harris. In addition, stand-off Finn Russell plays in France for Racing 92.
The absence of such key personnel would significantly impact upon Scotland’s chances against France.
Townsend, meanwhile, has made four changes to his starting XV for the match against Ireland at BT Murrayfield. WP Nel comes in for the suspended Zander Fagerson at tighthead; Jamie Ritchie returns to the back row in place of Blade Thomson; Sean Maitland replaces Darcy Graham on the wing; and Sam Johnson is picked at inside centre ahead of James Lang.