Two new-look sides face off with expectations guarded but high for each, but Paris is just about the worst place for any team to start their tourney. Scotland have been afforded an unusual amount of optimism heading in, based heavily on their impressive November matches, and some have suggested they might be in with a shout at the top of the table. A shade overly optimistic, one suspects, though a win in France would do no harm to such prognostications.
Vern Cotter has put his stamp on the team in a very short amount of time, and continues with virtually the same selection that gave New Zealand a fright at Murrayfield. Johnnie Beattie and Tim Visser replace injured Adam Ashe and Sean Maitland, but the only other changes are on the bench. Jim Hamilton’s ballast and gravelly demeanor are preferred to a more controlled Tim Swinson, with Alasdair Strokosch a similar sort picked to cover the back row.
Uncapped Edinburgh scrumhalf Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is the most exciting name among the reserves, with his recent form demanding selection and perhaps providing a little uncertainty to Greig Laidlaw’s position. With no obvious backup flyhalf, it’s Peter Horne who covers across the midfield, and Dougie Fife gets the call in place of injured Sean Lamont.
The good news from a French perspective is that there is continuity at last from Philippe Saint-André, with only minor tinkering in his preferred XV. Teddy Thomas has been forgiven for his absenteeism and returns on the left wing, and Rory Kockott is handed his first test start with Sébastien Tillous-Borde stuck in the infirmary. Aging tighthead Nicolas Mas has given way to Rabah Slimani in the only unenforced change, a move that surely signifies the beginning of the end for the old warrior.
Multiple changes adorn the reserves options, with uncapped Stade Rochelais no8 Loann Goujon the most notable inclusion. Racing Metro loosehead Eddy Ben Arous is recalled for his first Six Nations, and mammoth Toulon second row Romain Taofifenua takes an extra large chair beside the extra-extra large Uini Atonio. Morgan Parra and Rémi Lamerat are also welcomed back after time spent in the wilderness.
This is a difficult game to call with so much uncertainty in the cohesive abilities of both sides, but if ever Scotland might be expected to pull off a rare win at the Stade de France, this would be it. Laidlaw will have to keep the tempo high and kick his points, and his forwards will need to keep the same high work rate of November. If they can get an early score, they could frustrate the home side. It’s a perilous prediction at best, but pick Scotland to get a famous win over a dangerous but erratic French side by the narrowest of margins. Scots by 3.
FRANCE vs SCOTLAND
Saturday, February 7, 17:00 GMT, Paris
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistants: Glen Jackson (NZRU) & Mike Fraser (NZRU)
TMO: George Ayoub (ARU)