The Sunday Telegraph - Sport
Hogg calls on Scotland to ‘meet fire with fire’ in showdown with French
Captain warns opening 20 minutes key to side’s hopes Hosts determined to shut down threat from Dupont
Anyone wondering what happens when the most parsimonious defence in the Six Nations meets the most prolific attack need wait no longer. This afternoon, at Murrayfield, the unstoppable force of Fabien Galthie’s Grand Slamchasing France meets the would-be immovable object of a Scotland side desperate to give their fans some cheer with a fourth successive home win over Les Bleus.
The first 30 minutes will not only be instructive but are likely to be decisive. Over the past year Scotland have consistently leaked early tries, while in this Six Nations France have scored more than two thirds of their points in the first half before fading in the second.
Under Galthie and new defence coach Shaun Edwards, a young, mobile France side have proved themselves more durable, direct and abrasive than previous Gallic models. But if Scotland captain Stuart Hogg is to be believed, France’s combination of kicking for territory then chasing aggressively, particularly out wide, will be as much an opportunity as a threat.
“France now bring a high press and a blitz defence,” said Hogg. “But with every challenge comes an opportunity. We might get four or five opportunities in attack and have to make the most of every single one of them. The first 20 minutes will be key for us, we need to meet fire with fire and go after them. We need to front-up physically and knock them back in defence, as well as playing in the right areas in attack. They’re a high-pressing team, but how long can they keep that up for? For us it’s about turning their perceived strength of rushing up on the outside into a weakness. It’s high risk, high reward.”
Creating those opportunities will demand much of Scotland’s pack and back row in particular. But converting frontfoot ball and turnovers into points will demand first that Scotland are able to play without fear and with more precision than they mustered against Ireland, England and Italy, when a succession of scoring chances were squandered.
“I’ve said to the boys that we hold nothing back, let everything go, express ourselves and have some fun,” said Hogg. “When we do that, we score tries and defend well and show what it means to play for Scotland.”
Scotland certainly will not have any trouble getting hold of the ball if France kick as much as in previous games. The question is more around what they do with it. One clue is Gregor Townsend’s selection of No8 Nick Haining ahead of Magnus Bradbury specifically because of the effectiveness with which the former three-quarter runs back ball from the backfield.
The Scots have also been trying to work out how to overcome the blue wall that follows every kick from influential half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Soundings have been taken from Scots based in France – notably Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Johnnie Beattie – while Scotland scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, who played 150 times for Stade Francais and 68 times for
France, has also been feeding intelligence into the game plan. Townsend also played for three clubs in France.
Most of all, Scotland know Edwards and his defensive system, although counteracting his well-worn tactics is difficult. This week the members of the Scotland squad who are not in the match-day 23 have been exhaustively running through the moves used by France in their opening three games.
There are various ways to outmanoeuvre France, and playing at tempo so that the visitors’ defence does not have time to organise itself is certainly one weapon in Scotland’s arsenal. But top of the list when it comes to stymying France is to go after their creative fulcrum, Dupont. Even more than No 8 Gregory Alldritt and fly-half Ntamack, the 23-year-old scrum-half is the tactical brains behind France’s resurgence.
“He’s a really dangerous player,” said Hogg. “That’s something we’ve looked at this week in our preparations. His running threat, his ability to take on defenders, offload and bring others into the game means he’s a world-class talent and we’ll have to shut him down.”
The importance to Edwards of scrumfrom halves in general, and Dupont in particular, is something Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair instinctively understands. Blair worked with Edwards on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa and saw first hand how central the role of scrum-half is to his defensive system.
“The first time I came across him in 2009, I was defending off a line-out,” said Blair. “I did what I’d usually do with Scotland and Edinburgh, kind of fill in behind the line, and after two phases he blows his whistle and he was like, ‘Mike! What are you ----ing doing? Get in the front line and make something happen’.
“That was Shaun’s attitude with nines, make something happen, get in their face, create turnovers. And I think that’s his attitude with a team as well, don’t sit back and wait and let it happen in front of you. So that’s where they’ve got that line speed from, that aggressive side of things. It’s a tactic, a system we’re well aware of and we’ve got a few things that we can look at to unlock them.”
Do that and Scotland win. Fail and France play Ireland for the Grand Slam while Scotland head to Cardiff, where they have not won since 2002, with just one win to their name.