smallCotland is in uncharted territory and heading into choppy waters. Two wins from two for the first time since the Five Nations became Six and the excitement running through the tartan ranks is palpable. But now it’s sink or swim time for the hopes of an elusive title.
Defending champions France await Gregor Townsend’s side in Paris on Sunday before No 1-ranked Ireland descend on Edinburgh in a fortnight’s time. Defeat in either may not necessarily be a death blow, given that Italy visit Murrayfield in the fifth round. But optimists north of Hadrian’s Wall would have you believe that if Scotland is to shake off two decades of inadequacy, now is the time.
No-one is underestimating the challenge posed by a fired-up France side intent on showing their recent defeat in Dublin – their first in 15 matches – was just a blip on the road to a home World Cup in the autumn, but there’s no mistaking the musical mood. in the visitor camp.
Having repeated their 2021 victory at Twickenham three weeks ago and backed it up with a fine win over Wales, the Scots head to the Stade de France with faith and confidence, insisting they are yet to fully hit their stride.
They have a solid side, with Finn Russell and Richie Gray playing some of the rugby of their lives and boosted by the return of two British and Irish Lions. A fully recovered Hamish Watson replaces Luke Crosbie in the open side. The game management of scrum-half Ali Price, back on the bench after missing the first two wins, could also be crucial.
Watson, a powerful breakdown raider, will be key to stopping France from getting into their stride in attack, while adding pace and vibrancy to Scotland’s ball movement. With Glasgow’s Rory Darge on the comeback trail and potentially available for the Ireland game, Watson is under pressure to make an impact.
Townsend opted to match France’s six-two split of forwards and full-backs on the bench to try and maintain parity in the fitness stakes, with the abrasive Sam Skinner coming on to help combat the home side’s heavy brigade .
Fabien Galthié has hardly pressed the panic button after France’s failure in Dublin, making just one forced change. With heavyweight prop Uini Atonio suspended, Mohamed Hawass enters. The tight end has a history against Scotland. His savage punch to the head of Jamie Ritchie in 2020 brought a red card as the Scots secured their second of three wins in five league matches with the French watching Townsend.
Nine of Sunday’s starting XV featured in the stunning victory in Paris two years ago – the only time Les Bleus they have lost at home under Galthié. France took the lead five minutes into injury time when Duhan van der Merwe completed a remarkable 23-move attack, despite Scotland being manned for the final 10 minutes following Russell’s red card.
“The way we kept going at the end, the way we defended, the way we kept believing even when we were down men – it was outstanding,” Townsend recalled. “It’s going to take something to beat that performance.”
Maybe something from Townsend’s book? His place in Scottish rugby history is cemented by some of his exploits in Paris. As a 21-year-old in 1995, his out-of-the-back pass – the famous ‘Toonie Flip’ – to send Gavin Hastings home for a memorable winning try at the old Parc des Princes helped the Scots end a 26-year winless streak in French capital.
Four years later he orchestrated one of Scotland’s best-ever wins on foreign soil as a five-try first-half blitz – one scored by Townsend himself to complete a full house in that 1999 championship – paved the way for not just a remarkable 36-22. victory but also the final Five Nations title when England were undone by Scott Gibbs’ late try for Wales at Wembley the following day.
That was as good as it got for Scotland for another 22 years before Townsend’s side won in Paris two years ago.
With reports suggesting the Scottish Rugby Union are lining up Leon MacDonald, the former New Zealand back who is now Auckland Blues coach, as a possible successor when Townsend’s contract expires after the World Cup, this could be the last time leads Scotland. in the cauldron of Stade.
Another landslide victory would not only cement his love affair with Paris but set up a possible title showdown with Ireland on March 13 and a potential tilt at the grand slam. Really heady days.