Come kick-off time in Paris, the French could be looking at a probable wooden spoon. A narrow Italy win over Ireland earlier in the day would leave France needing to win and make up the remaining points difference, which currently stands at 23 points. Who could have predicted that come the final day it might be between France and Ireland for that dreaded piece of kitchenware? This was not part of the script for two of the pre-tournament favourites.
Scotland, for their part, have exceeded expectations already. Having said that, like many teams around them, they have regressed since the opening couple of rounds, when they looked willing to throw the ball around and conjured up some tremendous tries.
In previous years, France v Scotland in Paris would have been a nigh-on foregone conclusion. France, however, have been so dire and Scotland so brave that this is actually another difficult one to call.
Reasons to back France
At home in the Stade de France, they will be desperate not to let their fans down. It will be remembered as a woefully disappointing championship for them no matter what happens this weekend, but no doubt they will want to leave their supporters with at least one good memory. They showed last weekend in the final half hour against Ireland that there is actually some belief and grit in this team, battling back to grab a draw and their first point of the tournament. They are qualities that had been glaringly lacking in the previous rounds – lacklustre would be a kind way of describing how they have looked at times.
Of course it would be impossible to preview this game without mentioning Freddie Michalak. If – and that is about the biggest ‘if’ there is in rugby – he finds some form, this French backline could be lethal. The guile of Fofana mixed with the brutish strength of Bastareaud, allied with the finishing abilities of Médard and Clerc and the mazy counter-attacking of Huget? Some decent service from Michalak and Parra and they could terrorise the Scottish defence.
They should at least get a decent platform to play from. Domingo and Mas are two of the best scrummagers in the tournament, and behind them young Sébastien Vahaamahina provides ballast in the form of his 18 stones and 10 pounds. And then there is the imperious Louis Picamoles who, in stats-terms at least, has been the player of the championship. If he gets that solid foundation, this is surely Michalak’s last chance to impress.
Reasons to back Scotland
The pressure is off. Two wins represent more than most Scotland fans would have hoped for pre-championship, and Scott Johnson, despite all his deflection in the media, will surely be offered the head coach role full time. He and Dean Ryan have proved a popular and successful partnership, and deserve to be given the chance to lead Scotland towards the 2015 World Cup.
With that in mind, the pressure should be lifted slightly and hopefully they might expand their game a little. In the opening two matches the lethal triumvirate of Maitland, Visser and Hogg were in sparkling form, carving opposition defences up and scoring length of the field tries. Since then, however, they have seen very little ball as Scotland’s game-plan has tightened up.
Up front several players have the chance to lay down a marker for the Lions. Ryan Grant has impressed this championship both with his scrummaging and his work-rate in the loose – a good performance could see him nudge his way into contention. Captain Kelly Brown will, as always, lead by example and his clash with fellow workhorse and tree-chopper Thierry Dusautoir will be fascinating. Jim Hamilton has a shepherding role to play as uncapped Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist comes into the engine room in place of the injured Richie Gray. Gray has not been at his best this championship, but Gilchrist nevertheless has an important role to fill.
It has been repeated before every round thus far, but surely France will get a win at some point? Scotland have looked vastly improved and have finally managed to find a way of winning tight games – something that has eluded them for years. That said, they haven’t shown anything in their last couple of matches to unduly worry the French. If this is the day Michalak finally finds his form, France could run away with it. If, as is far more likely, he continues to look flaky – well, they will probably win anyway. France by 9.