Six Nations 2023: France v Scotland – Gregor Townsend’s side face acid test

The Scotland players celebrate at full time during a Guinness Six Nations match between France and Scotland at the Stade de France
Scotland triumphed 27-23 in an empty Stade de France two years ago
Venue: Stade de France, Paris Dates: Sunday, 26 February Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Live radio commentary on BBC Radio Scotland; text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

When Scotland won in Paris two years ago for the first time since 1999, Gregor Townsend said it felt like “one of our best ever seasons”.

It was his side’s third win from five matches – including a victory at Twickenham – as they secured fourth place.

So the head coach would presumably have to come up with a whole new category if Scotland were to repeat the feat on Sunday and go three from three with two home games still left to play.

If Scotland do upset the odds against France, they will finally announce themselves as not only Six Nations title contenders, but one of two Grand Slam hopefuls – with the other, Ireland, to come at Murrayfield next.

It’s a truly mouth-watering prospect, and one that would have been unthinkable a month ago.

But, it’s an ‘if’ the size of some of the French behemoths who await them.

A wounded France side ranked second in the world is lurking, one that has just tasted defeat for the first time in 574 days and had their Grand Slam hopes dashed seven months out from a home World Cup.

Unlike in 2021, the Stade de France will be packed and noisily expecting a home win while the stacked France team will be keen to put on a show and right some wrongs in their first home match of the championship.

Townsend said this week France have the “biggest depth of any nation”. Few would quibble with him.

So, after efficiently dispatching England and Wales – teams who are currently relatively limited in attack – how good are Scotland when it comes to the top of world rugby?

We’re about to find out. It’s the acid test of their credentials.

France facing questions

The Scottish rugby public will rightly be sceptical of their team’s chances of winning the game given the paucity of success in the last 23 years.

Scotland have come to Paris 11 times and won once in the Six Nations, and been dismissed by even poor France sides in the process.

But there are reasons to believe in Scotland this time, and they are not all based on the good things that have come in the two wins so far, or Townsend’s solid recent record against the French.

France, for all their quality, are facing questions at home in the wake of that defeat by Ireland.

The French sports paper L’Equipe ran an article this week that referred to the Dublin defeat as having “thickened the fog” of the autumn, where Fabien Galthie’s side squeezed over the line a couple of times to salvage their unbeaten run.

They did so again with a narrow opening Six Nations win against Italy, before finally their streak stopped at 14.

The fog in question is the tension there seems to be between the urge to run and play freely, and Galthie’s previously – very successful – plan to kick a lot and to squeeze teams, turn them over, and deploy the litany of X-factor players to finish the job.

The frankly ridiculous 46 minutes of ball-in-play time in Dublin suggested the players went off that well-defined script, and they were ruthlessly punished as Ireland scored four tries and left at least another three out on the Aviva turf in their frenetic 32-19 win.

It might be that was the reality check some of the more adventurous members of the squad needed, and Galthie will restore order for Scotland’s visit.

Defence coach Shaun Edwards will be bristling that his side shipped four tries. A ferocious response is surely coming. But if there are creative tensions in the camp, then Townsend’s team are well suited to exploiting them.

Russell set for showcase

So much of their attempt to do that will focus on Finn Russell.

The fly-half was majestic in the second half against Wales, whether it was offloading and kicking for tries, or just generally strolling around making things look effortless.

His brilliance has been key in Scotland’s ruthlessly efficient attack, having scored nine tries from paltry possession so far in the tournament, and he will thrive if France play loosely again.

The 30-year-old gave some fascinating insight into his detailed preparation on opposition defences this week, and will pitch up in Paris, the city he has lit up in a Racing 92 jersey and has called home for the last five years, with a point to prove too.

France will come after him, and as he enters the final months of his time there – which threatens to end trophyless – before a switch to Bath, there persists a narrative of a brilliant, but inconsistent player.

On Scotland’s last trip two years ago, the French public saw both sides of Russell as his pinpoint kicking game laid the platform to derail France’s title hopes, before a red card for a forearm fend with 10 minutes left put his team in bother.

In the end, they dug out a win without him, Adam Hastings throwing a Russell-esque pass out to Duhan van der Merwe for the winning score at the end – with the help of France’s Brice Dulin bizarrely keeping the ball in play with his team ahead and the clock red.

It’s a reminder that it’s never all about Russell, and it won’t be on Sunday.

But given his red-hot form, the stage is set for him to turn in a complete performance in one of rugby’s most daunting arenas and lead his team to victory, as they pursue something much more tangible than a reel of jaw-dropping highlights.

A genuine Six Nations title tilt.

If Russell succeeds nobody will doubt him, or Scotland, any more. What nobody doubts, is it’s sure to be a thrilling watch.

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