|Venue: BT Murrayfield, Edinburgh Date: Sunday 22 November Kick-off: 15:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland, follow text updates on the BBC Sport website|
This imperfect beast that is the Autumn Nations Cup suffered another kick in the guts on Friday when Fiji’s ongoing issues with Covid-19 laid waste to their visit to Murrayfield to play Scotland next weekend – just as it did for their game against France last weekend.
Sporting life is so precarious these days that we have to give thanks for the fixtures we have rather than lament the fixtures we’ve lost. The All Blacks would have been playing at Murrayfield on Saturday had it not been for Covid.
The Nations Cup is a gap-filler, a testing ground ahead of the proper stuff in the Six Nations in the spring, but it’s welcome nonetheless, particularly when it’s the French coming Scotland’s way on Sunday.
In the Six Nations just gone, Antoine Dupont was the player of the championship. The sadly injured Romain Ntamack scored more points than any other player, Charles Ollivon scored more tries and Paul Willemse and Bernard Le Roux made more tackles.
In the team of the tournament, the French could lay serious claim to having seven players in the chosen 15 – Anthony Bouthier at full-back, Virimi Vakatawa at 13, Gael Fickou on the wing, Ntamack and Dupont at half-back, Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt in the back-row. It was France’s best Six Nations in a decade, a reawakening of a giant that’s been snoring its head off for far too long.
And yet, regret. In winning four out of five, France finished second. They’d have finished first, with a Grand Slam, had the pesky Scots not ruined it all at Murrayfield. You could easily argue that, by having Mohamed Haouas, on the bench on Sunday, red-carded then, they only had themselves to blame for a 28-17 defeat that killed the Slam, but the French might see it another way.
They may have been nursing some wrath for Scotland through the virus months. In the days after their defeat in Edinburgh, an alternative reality around the Haouas incident took hold among some members of the French management. Team manager Raphael Ibanez asked the Six Nations to take a closer look at the origins of the flare-up that saw the excitable Haouas punching Jamie Ritchie in the face, particularly at Nick Haining as his hand appeared to make contact with Haouas’ eyes just before the prop lost the plot.
“We have found some quite revealing images,” Ibanez said at the time. He felt that Haouas deserved red but that Haining deserved one too.
Nothing came of France’s “dossier”. They wouldn’t be the only ones in world rugby who feel that, had they kept 15 men on the park, they’d have won the match, the championship and the Slam. Scotland scored 20 of their 26 points after the prop walked. We’ll never know the truth.
There should be an edge to this
What we do know is that Gregor Townsend’s team exploited their numerical advantage well and played terrific rugby. Hamish Watson was a powerhouse, not that that’s a revelation. Watson is one of the most consistently excellent back-row forwards on the planet right now.
There should be an edge to this. France will want to show that their loss in March would never have happened without the red card. Scotland will want to show that it would have happened red or no red. Not many outside their bubble will believe that, but here’s a chance to change minds.
Gregor Townsend has gone with a whole new front-row and a new number eight in Matt Fagerson. The Scotland coach has flipped between Fagerson, Nick Haining, Cornel du Preez and Blade Thomson at the back of the scrum in the three games against Georgia, Wales and Italy, but none of them have nailed the spot yet.
On the bench, there’s a welcome return for Duncan Taylor, who hasn’t been seen in a Scotland jersey since the Russia game at the World Cup. Having done his penance for breaching Covid regulations, Sean Maitland is back in the 23. Maitland might have behaved idiotically as a rule-busting Barbarian, but that can’t be a life sentence. He scored two tries against France last time out.
That Scotland bench – Taylor, Maitland, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Zander Fagerson, Sam Skinner, George Turner – has some major firepower now. Jamie Bhatti as back-up to Oli Kebble is the one concern. Bhatti hasn’t played a huge amount in recent times.
Victory would lay down Six Nations marker
Scotland are on a run of five straight victories, had the nous to see off Wales in Llanelli in difficult conditions and had the maturity to overcome their own shortcomings in Florence and take care of Italy. These Nations Cup games are important, not for the trophy that awaits the winner – presumably there is one, not that it matters – but for Six Nations purposes.
They believe they’ve got a chance of being contenders, that they can deal with going to Twickenham and Paris in the opening three rounds and still be in the hunt at the end when they host Ireland and Italy in rounds four and five. Winning on Sunday is important in that regard. The more they topple the totems, the more they’ll think they’ve got nothing to fear out there.
Injury has denied us the chance to see Finn Russell play against his adopted country and Ntamack will be missing too. The battle of the 10s would have been engrossing. There’s always Dupont, though – and what Scotland intend to do to stop him. Three tries in his past two Tests against Wales and Ireland only scratches at the surface of his influence.
It’s unlikely that France will make Scotland’s job easier again by losing their discipline, so this rematch will be a fair old fight. Another win for Townsend’s players and the band of doubters will diminish further. This is about winning in the here and now – but also about laying down a marker for next year.