March 7, 2020
Gregor Townsend was Fabien Galthié’s half-back partner when the France head coach signed off his playing career in 2004 with a farewell outing for the French Barbarians.
The former Scotland fly-half had returned to France towards the end of his career for a season with Montpellier, his third stint in the Top 14 after spells with Brive and Castres. “We were playing against Australia and it wasn’t the most professional of buildups,” he said as he recalled their unlikely take on the Auld Alliance.
On Sunday they will be reacquainted for the first time as coaches of their respective countries, with Scotland the latest hurdle for Les Bleus in their quest for a first Six Nations title – and possible grand slam – in 10 years. “Fabian is a lovely guy off the field but on it was he was always a real competitor and I am sure he coaches that way too,” Townsend said. “He has obviously made a big impact on this French team.”
As a keen observer of French rugby, the Scotland head coach can sense revolution in the air, with former captain and scrum-half Galthié successfully bedding in young players who won back-to-back titles together in the Under-20 World Championship.
It is not just a change of personnel, though. “There is probably a revolution in terms of their game philosophy,” Townsend said. “They have built that on their defence and they are kicking the ball more than they have before, the most of any team in the championship. It is very different to what we are used to from a French team.”
Like everyone else, Townsend cannot help but be impressed by the half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romaine Ntamack, the poster boys of this nouveau France who have taken their club partnership with Toulouse into the Test arena. “Dupont is world-class, arguably the best nine in the world,” he added. “You can see the influence he has in attack and defence; he is exceptional. We are very aware we can’t let him have any half yard of space around the ruck.
“Ntamack is a fantastic rugby player who played really well against us last year and has a very good understanding with his club-mate. They are an excellent team, there’s no two ways about it, with very good individuals.”
Damian Penaud takes over from Teddy Thomas on the right wing at Murrayfield, having recovered from a thigh injury which kept him out of France’s first three Tests. There is one further change up front, with Jefferson Poirot replacing the injured Cyril Baille at loosehead.
Townsend has shaken up his own side with a change in each row of the pack. Fraser Brown, who started the first two games of the Championship, returns at hooker for Stuart McInally and will lead the side out on the occasion of his 50th cap.
The “consistency and experience” of Grant Gilchrist is preferred at lock over his Edinburgh teammate Ben Toolis, who drops out of the 23 with the fit-again Exeter lock Sam Skinner returning on the bench. Nick Haining, who was sent back to Edinburgh after a promising debut against Ireland in Dublin last month, takes over at No 8 from Magnus Bradbury, who also drops to the bench.
“Nick’s work-rate has gone up in attack and defence, and the more he plays, the better he looks,” Townsend said. “France have kicked a lot in the first two games so you have a picture of how you expect them to play, and Nick started off as a back-line player so is very comfortable in the back-field. That is one strength we believe he can show at the weekend.”
Townsend has also summoned Duncan Weir – who won the last of his 27 caps three years ago and is yet to feature under the head coach – as fly-half cover for Adam Hastings, mindful that the Edinburgh weather may yet play a part in proceedings. Weir’s return means the South Africa-born Glasgow wing Kyle Steyn – who can also cover centre – could make his Test debut off the bench.
While Townsend acknowledged that France are probably ahead of schedule under Galthié as they build towards a home World Cup in 2023, only one of the current squad – Gaël Fickou in 2014 – has tasted victory at Murrayfield.
Scotland have prevailed in their past three Edinburgh encounters, including a World Cup warm-up last summer, and there is a quiet confidence that the grand slam chasers will not have it all their own way on Sunday. “We know how good we will have to play to beat this French team but we have prepared very well and we are up for the challenge,” Townsend added. “We have got to be patient and accurate for the whole 80 minutes.”