Scotland head to France targeting their highest ever finish in the Six Nations
Scotland’s 52-10 victory over Italy in Edinburgh on Saturday was as convincing as the scoreline suggests and sets up Gregor Townsend’s men for what is not quite a tilt at glory but the chance of a significant achievement nonetheless.
They now have the chance of going to Paris on Friday night and claiming a second-place finish in the Six Nations for the first time.
It would likely require a winning margin of eight points or more whilst denying France a try bonus point. No easy task, especially when you take into consideration the history of the fixture. The Scots have won in Paris only twice in the past 50 years but this side have already proved adept at obliterating away-day hoodoos.
The win in Wales last October was their first in the Principality for 18 years and the victory at Twickenham last month was Scotland’s first away victory over England since 1983.
Of course, the absence of supporters removes much of the advantage of playing at home and Scotland will head to the Stade de France imbued with the confidence of a record-breaking win.
Italy were a poor lot at Murrayfield but the home side were ruthless in chalking up Scotland’s highest score and biggest winning points margin in Championship history.
It was a much-changed side, with two players making their first Test starts and others playing out of position and Townsend now faces the dilemma of who to retain and who to recall as he plots his plan of attack against a French side who claimed such a dramatic victory at home against Wales on Saturday night.
The good news for the national coach is that he will have a full squad to choose from after a deal was struck with England’s leading clubs on Saturday evening to ensure they would release their Scotland players for a fixture which falls outside the international window.
In the expectation that Finn Russell will return after a head knock, captain Stuart Hogg will revert to full-back after his outing at 10 on Saturday. A question mark remains over Jonny Gray who missed the Italy game with a shoulder injury, although the performance of Grant Gilchrist in the second row was heartening.
The positions of hooker and scrum-half present posers for Townsend after Dave Cherry and Scott Steele both acquitted themselves well on their first starts for Scotland. The coach will balance that against the performances of George Turner and Ali Price in the opening three games and, indeed, the latter pair’s contribution from the bench on Saturday.
“We’re now going to have a situation where we’ve got more players to select from, more players with game experience, putting pressure on those who started those first three games,” said Townsend.
“Obviously Finn should be available and we’ll monitor Jonny Gray’s progress. They’re key players for us. And we’ll have a good review of Saturday’s game to see whether players are going to be selected again next week and whether they’re right for our game-plan for France.
“Scott Steele and Dave Cherry on their first starts for their country were both outstanding. You look for players to take their opportunities by working hard, by being confident, by connecting with others in the team and they both did that. It was great to see them score tries and be part of a winning team on their first starts.”
Townsend’s side became the quickest so far this year to secure a bonus point, taking just 28 minutes to chalk up four tries.
Cherry got the ball rolling for Scotland, powering over from a lineout drive after Italy had taken a shock lead through captain Luca Bigi’s fifth-minute try.
Hogg, Sam Johnson and Hamish Watson combined to release Duhan van der Merwe for the second Scotland score and then fellow winger Darcy Graham got in on the act, stepping over the line after Huw Jones popped up a pass from the floor following a surging run from Sean Maitland.
Jones, an impressive attacking presence throughout, scored his 12th Scotland try in 30 Tests after a delightful pass from Hogg and Scotland had the bonus point secured with 12 minutes remaining of the first half.
The second period was even more one-sided as the home side scored another four tries, taking advantage of further Italian indiscipline. Federico Mori had been sin-binned in the first half and Sebastian Negri and Monty Ioane were yellow-carded after the interval.
Cherry scored his second try with a carbon copy of his first and then Steele went over from close range after Johnson had been stopped on the line. The Glasgow centre got the try his performance deserved with 15 minutes remaining before Scotland rounded things off with the move of the match.
Price, on as a sub for Steele, was the architect, picking up a loose ball deep in his own 22 then galloping to halfway. His one-handed pass to the supporting van der Merwe was perfection, taking out three Italian defenders and allowing the winger a clear run for his second score.
Hogg converted six of the eight tries - another Scottish Six Nations record - as Italy faced up to the depressing reality of six successive campaigns without a win in the tournament.
The matchday stats made grim reading for the visitors who missed 49 tackles and conceded 16 penalties.
The result, combined with England’s defeat in Dublin, ensures Scotland will finish above their oldest rivals for only the third time in the 22 years of the Six Nations.