Rugby Union: Five nations championship: Hastings fights to stem strong-running tide

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The Independent Online
IT IS now almost 20 years since the French team adopted Parc des Princes as their home, but Scotland's bonny lads have yet to savour the taste of victory in the magnificent stadium here.

Indeed, Scotland have still not won in Paris since 1969, when Jim Telfer scored the decisive try at Stade Colombes five minutes from full time. Today, as the two countries prepare to do battle for the 64th time, there is little, even discounting the weight of history, to indicate that this losing streak can at last be reversed.

As things stand, France and Scotland have an uncannily symmetrical record against each other. Of the 63 games to date, each has notched up 30 wins, with three matches drawn. In addition, each team has won exactly 21 times at home, and nine times away. Neither France nor Scotland have won away since 1978, and when their first-ever game on neutral territory took place in Christchurch during the 1987 World Cup, the pundits duly awaited the result with great anticipation. They drew, 20-20.

'There is no such thing as a Paris bogey,' Gavin Hastings, the Scottish captain, claimed after training in icy conditions at Maison-Lafitte yesterday. While the captain and coach spoke freely with the press, the local club produced their version of morning tea - pastis, red wine and biscuits. 'The Parc des Princes is a great stadium and certainly very different, but it is never intimidating. Even when they are roaring for the French, the noise of the crowd gives you a tremendous lift,' Hastings said.

He admitted, however, that the Scots were aware of their record and the historical difficulty which faces them. 'I agree we haven't performed as well here for 80 minutes as we have at Murrayfield. To beat the French at home you have to be right on top of your game and we have just never managed to achieve that.'

Ian McGeechan was hoping for victory on his final visit as coach. 'I wish we knew why it is so difficult to win here. Perhaps we have just lacked that vital level of control at crucial times.' Like his captain, he dismissed the idea of a psychological barrier at the Parc des Princes. 'The press have a psychological barrier. We don't,' he said. 'The past is irrelevant. This is a new game, there are just two teams and a result to go for.'

The French, meanwhile, put the final touches to their preparation at Clairefontaine. After their narrow defeat at Twickenham, they are now desperate to win the hearts of their home crowd and have undertaken to play attractive, attacking rugby. 'Against England we showed not only that we have improved our discipline and our self-control, but also that we can now win a steady supply of ball,' Pierre Berbizier, the coach, said. 'Our next step is to use the ball properly and the Scots, who also like to run the ball, are the ideal team to do that against.'

The French, he said, are also under a 'not unhealthy pressure to perform. We're forced to make good use of the ball, to please the crowd. Out of our respect for our supporters we have to try and live up to their expectations.'

Taking no consolation from the fact that the Scots have had to replace Alan Watt, their loose- head prop, with Peter Wright, a tight head, the French have put emphasis on their scrum work. Wright, nevertheless, remained unfazed by the prospect of switching sides. 'I've already played a lot at loose head,' he said. 'Since the beginning of the season I have often trained on the loose during Scottish squad sessions. There is not a lot of difference between the two.'

As for the Tricolores' intention to play an attacking game, Hastings said he has the solution. 'If they run at us, we'll just tackle them. We have a very organised and disciplined defence and we just need to put in a few powerful tackles.'

This may not be quite sufficient to win for the first time since the likes of Telfer, Carmichael, Stagg, Hinshelwood and Rea, but the Scots are sure to have at least one thing to smile about today. Their stirring Flower of Scotland will at last be heard at the Parc des Princes. Two years ago when they played here, somebody faxed the band the wrong music and at anthem time they played Prince Charlie's Roses instead.