reports from Edinburgh
The Scottish Rugby Union has been having trouble selling the "Thistle", Murrayfield's most expensive debenture at pounds 9,900, but the sound of moths leaving well-preserved wallets should coincide today with the prospect of another epic encounter against France.
The countries tend to bring the best out of each other and their speciality has been a dramatic denouement. Twelve months ago France were leading 21-16 at the Parc des Princes when Gregor Towns- end, then playing centre, slipped a sublime pass to Gavin Hastings and the full-back scored beneath the posts and converted to seal Scotland's first win in Paris for 26 years.
There was another cliff-hanger when they met in the World Cup in the summer, Emile Ntamack scoring the winning try in the last minute in Pretoria, condemning Scotland to a quarter-final against the All Blacks. Rob Wainwright, who has succeeded Hastings as captain, believes that Scotland played a poor tactical game against the French in South Africa.
"We tried to see the clock out," Wainwright said, "and that's a dangerous policy. You put yourself under more pressure and take a bigger risk by trying to sit on a lead. It was a subconscious decision. It's part of the mentality in Britain. All the teams are as bad as each other."
Scotland had an excellent first half in Pretoria, after which they tended to hug the touchline, an incomprehensible tactic against a team with such a commanding line-out presence. Wainwright is not a clock-watcher or a scoreboard scanner, which explains why he was unaware of the half-time score against Ireland at Lansdowne Road two weeks ago.
Even at this early stage of the championship, Scotland's 16-10 victory in Dublin has set up what promises to be the key match in France's grand design for the slam. "If Ireland had got a penalty try at the end we'd have lost, so we can't sit back on that performance and say it was great," Wainwright said. "The spirit was fantastic but a lot of things we tried didn't come off. We should have been more ruthless and scored more points. It can easily be improved."
It will have to be if Scotland are to stop a French side that, following the 15-12 victory over England in Paris, probably feels it has escaped from a straitjacket. Jim Telfer, Scotland's supremo (such a description in rugby is just about permissible now that the game has gone professional) has been studying the video of France-England and it is not a production destined to pick up awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
"It brings tears to the eyes rather than water to the mouth," Telfer said, after supervising training at Boroughmuir yesterday. "It was like watching a couple of heavyweight boxers punching hell out of each other. Both sides wanted to win so badly without showing too much. The physical confrontation was far greater than in the Ireland-Scotland match."
Telfer believes that France were unfortunate not to have won the World Cup and that they are now a better team than the one that recently defeated New Zealand. "There are two ways they can play it," Telfer said. "With the traditional flair or the more physical approach they showed against England. We are ready for both."
France have been particularly vulnerable at Murrayfield - their win there in 1994 was their first in 16 years - but whatever way they decide to play it today will almost certainly be too good for Scotland. The enormous French pack can be expected to dictate terms and although Scotland are well equipped in the vital departments of back row and half-back (all had terrific games in Dublin) their front five will come under tremendous pressure, as England's did in the second half in Paris.
Whereas France appear to have the option on style, Scotland do not have the muscle to win an attritional battle. Thierry Lacroix is a more conservative stand-off, certainly more conservative than Gregor Townsend, but the trinity of Jean-Luc Sadourny, Philippe Saint-Andre and Ntamack can expect to see far more of the ball than they did against England.
"We have come to expect a lot from them," Jean-Claude Skrela, France's coach said. "When you look around the world it's hard to find a better, more potent combination and they have been the decisive factor in many games. There is something unpredictable about them. Each is capable of being a creator, a finisher or starting off a counter-attack."
Their trademark is what has been described as the "try from the end of the world" against New Zealand two years ago. It was started by Saint Andre on the left wing, carried on by Ntamack on the right and the move ended, 90 metres and seven passes later, with full-back Sadourny touching down.
Scotland are unlikely to have a lead to sit on today, although Wainwright predicts another close encounter. A mouth-watering prospect that should shift a few of those prickly Thistle tickets, but a few familiar figures will be absent. The Princess Royal, Scotland's patron who never misses a match, is in the Falklands while the practice of French spectators in releasing a cockerel or two on to the pitch has been banned. Famous Grouse yes, cockerel persona non grata, and France is crying fowl.
SCOTLAND v FRANCE
R Shepherd Melrose 15 J-L Sadourny Colomiers
C Joiner Melrose 14 E Ntamack Toulouse
S Hastings Watsonians 13 A Penaud Brive
I Jardine Stirling County 12 T Castaignede Toulouse
M Dods Northampton 11 P Saint Andre Montferrand, capt
G Townsend Northampton 10 T Lacroix Dax
B Redpath Melrose 9 P Carbonneau Toulouse
D Hilton Bath 1 M Perie Toulon
K McKenzie Stirling County 2 J-M Gonzales Bayonne
P Wright Boroughmuir 3 C Califano Toulouse
S Campbell Dundee HSFP 4 O Merle Montferrand
G Weir Melrose 5 O Roumat Dax
R Wainwright West Hartlepool, capt 6 A Benazzi Agen
E Peters Bath 8 F Pelous Dax
I Smith Gloucester 7 L Cabannes Racing Club
Referee: C Thomas (Wales). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC Scotland)
Replacements: 16 K Logan (Stirling County), 17 C Chalmers (Melrose), 18 G Armstrong (Newcastle), 19 S Murray (Edinburgh Academicals), 20 P Burnell (London Scottish), 21 J Hay (Hawick).
Replacements: 16 P Bernat-Salles (Begles), 17 S Glas (Bourgoin), 18 G Accoceberry (Begles), 19 R Castel (Toulouse) 20 M de Rougemont (Toulon), 21 L Benezech (Racing Club).