Rugby Union: France's lack of logic may be only hope for Williams

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PRESENTER who blithely suggested on BBC Radio Five Live yesterday lunchtime that this was the most open Six Nations Championship in years - "with four possible contenders" - was running the risk of offending only the most one-eyed Scot. Even Matt Williams, the Australian coach charged with making a tartan silk purse out of a sow's ear, can predict no more than that "there is a big win in this team, we just don't know when it will come".

Paris this afternoon seems an unlikely time and place, although the balance tipped a little in Scotland's direction when France lost each of their well-established back row - Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy and Olivier Magne - to injury. France's coach, Bernard Laporte, has further invited quizzical looks by dropping Frederic Michalak at fly-half, and going against all logic in selecting a 23rd different combination at half-back for this, his 60th match since taking over after the 1999 World Cup. Still, the Scots' view from their end of the see-saw remains distinctly vertiginous.

Williams took the job this time last year, asking to be judged on the next 18 months. His debut Six Nations began with a wooden spoon and a whitewash - respectively, Scotland's first since 1994 and 1985 - but the coach promised that by the end of this year's Championship he would be "looking to have brought the young players through and change our systems".

The process continues, and a new centre pairing brings together Hugo Southwell, normally a full-back, and Andy Craig.

"Hugo has spent some limited time at centre with Edinburgh," said Williams, "but his great talent is that he has no fear; he's fast, he's aggressive and he has a go." There is danger out wide in the sizeable Sean Lamont and Simon Danielli - if they get some decent ball.

The Scots' front five is bolstered by the return of Tom Smith and Scott Murray and Gavin Kerr has elbowed aside Bruce Douglas at tight-head. Smith, the two-time Lion, may be taking deep gulps of Parisian air soon after kick-off having played only a match and a half for his club after 11 weeks out injured. A longer term absentee, the gifted No 8 Simon Taylor, is feeling his way back from knee surgery on loan and on the bench for Saracens at Northampton.

Scotland last won in Paris in 1999, pre-Laporte, and though that was one of France's shoot-yourselves-in-the-foot occasions, the idea that the current regime has removed the old vulnerability was torpedoed when New Zealand won 45-6 here in November. Next up to the plate at fly-half is Yann Delaigue, of Castres, who partners Pierre Mignoni. The pair were occasional team-mates in their younger days at Toulon but have never started together for France. Delaigue admitted to his surprise at being given the goal-kicking duties, as he is second choice for his club.

Still, the 31-year-old does not believe the 2007 World Cup is beyond him. "The World Cup is a dream," Delaigue said, "but it will come around quickly enough."

If France, in the meantime, are to challenge for an unprecedented fifth Grand Slam in nine years, it could be the flying Agen full-back Pepito Elhorga who leads the way.

Scotland's Six Nations record is as flaky as a croissant: only seven wins in 25 matches since they claimed the last Five Nations title in 1999.

These things tend to go in cycles, so the question is when will Scotland break out of this one? A special general meeting last Sunday to debate the recent administrative ructions in the Scottish Rugby Union went on for four and a half hours. It will take a third of that today to gauge the health of the Scottish game on the field.


Kick-off 2.0pm today (Live BBC1)


P Elhorga (Agen) 15 C Paterson (Edinburgh)

A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne) 14 S Danielli (Borders)

B Liebenberg (Stade Francais) 13 A Craig (Glasgow)

D Traille (Biarritz) 12 H Southwell (Edinburgh)

C Dominici (Stade Francais) 11 S Lamont (Glasgow)

Y Delaigue (Castres) 10 D Parks (Glasgow)

P Mignoni (Clermont Auvergne) 9 C Cusiter (Borders)

S Marconnet (Stade Francais) 1 T Smith (Northampton)

W Servat (Toulouse) 2 G Bulloch (Glasgow, capt)

P de Villiers (Stade Francais) 3 G Kerr (Leeds)

F Pelous (Toulouse, capt) 4 S Grimes (Newcastle)

J Thion (Biarritz) 5 S Murray (Edinburgh)

J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) 6 J White (Sale)

S Chabal (Sale) 7 J Petrie (Glasgow)

P Tabacco (Stade Francais) 8 A Hogg (Edinburgh)

Referee: N Williams (Wales)

Replacements: S Bruno (Sale); O Milloud (Bourgoin); G Lamboley (Toulouse), Y Nyanga (Beziers); D Yachvili (Biarritz); F Michalak (Toulouse); L Valbon (Brive).

Replacements: R Russell (London Irish); B Douglas (Borders); N Hines (Edinburgh); J Dunbar (Leeds); M Blair (Edinburgh); G Ross (Leeds); B Hinshelwood (Worcester).