France will look to revive their Six Nations campaign against Scotland in Edinburgh on Saturday on the back of a humbling defeat by Ireland on home soil.
The winner of the Ireland-France fixture has gone on to complete a Grand Slam in each of the past two years, but in Marseille it was barely a contest as the Irish rolled over the 14-man hosts 38-17.
Scotland, meanwhile, may have won against Wales in Cardiff for the first time in 22 years, but a nerve-shredding 27-26 victory, having led 27-0 early in the second half, did little to shake doubts over the ability of Gregor Townsend’s team to compete for a first Six Nations title.
France coach Fabien Galthie is beginning to feel the heat as last year’s World Cup hosts struggle to shake off the effects of a heartbreaking 29-28 quarterfinal defeat by eventual champions South Africa.
The loss of star scrum-half Antoine Dupont, who will take a break from the 15-man game to pursue rugby sevens gold at the Paris Olympics later this year, has hit the French even harder than imagined.
Second row Paul Willemse will also be missing in Edinburgh after being handed a four-week ban for his first-half red card against Ireland that left France with a mountain to climb.
Galthie, however, made just two changes to his side announced Thursday, with lock Cameron Woki replacing Willemse and Louis Bielle-Biarrey coming in for Yoram Moefana on the left wing.
Victory at Murrayfield would go some way to lessening the disappointment of a defeat by Ireland, who have lost just once in 18 matches, while suffering the handicap of being a man down for more than 40 minutes.
“We are competitors, we want to win every game,” said Galthie, adding: “The values of our sport teach us to be stronger together… Obviously, when you lose you criticize the game.”
Another defeat would deepen the suspicion Galthie has been unable to lift his players following France’s failure to win a first World Cup in front of an an expectant home crowd.
Nevertheless, former France scrum-half Galthie insisted: “It’s often in difficult moments that we find the extra resources to perform better. Our journey hasn’t been easy. There’s not a single player or coach that has had an easy path to get here.”
Scotland will be genuine title contenders if they win successive home games against France and England. But they cannot afford the ill-discipline and mistakes that left them on the verge of an historic collapse in Cardiff.
In the end two tries from Duhan van der Merwe, created by the ingenuity of fly-half Finn Russell, and one from Pierre Schoeman, proved to be enough.
Russell’s fellow co-captain Rory Darge has been recalled for his first appearance in six weeks, following a knee injury.
The 23-year-old replaces Jamie Ritchie at openside flanker, with the former Scotland captain dropped from the entire matchday 23.
Scotland coach Townsend has made two other changes to his starting XV, with back-row Jack Dempsey and lock Grant Glchrist returning after Luke Crosbie and Richie Gray were ruled out of the rest of the tournament with shoulder and bicep injuries respectively.
“Once we knew Luke was going to be ruled out and Rory was available we had a good look at the back-row and what the best blend would be and we’ve gone with a Glasgow back-row (Matt Fagerson, Darge and Dempsey),” explained Townsend, already without Toulouse full-back Blair Kinghorn and Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham.
Scotland and France met three times in 2023, with the Scots falling to a 32-21 Six Nations defeat in Paris, while the spoils were shared in two warm-up games before the World Cup.
“France know they didn’t play their best rugby against Ireland, so we’ll get a reaction,” said former Scotland playmaker Townsend. “We know they are a quality team, still top three or four in the world… We’ll have to be at our best level physically. The previous games have opened up, which suits the strengths of our players.”
© 2024 AFP