It is International Waffle Day on Thursday and, just in case it is not marked in the diary, the French Rugby Federation provided a timely reminder on social media. It was at best tongue-in-cheek, more accurately in questionable taste and a reference to how members of the France team were found to have eaten at a waffle restaurant in breach of Covid-19 protocols earlier in the tournament, following an investigation into an outbreak in their squad. The outbreak, lest we forget, that resulted in their match against Scotland being postponed and rearranged for Friday night.
Should Fabien Galthié’s team play with the same audacity, the delayed climax to this year’s Six Nations will not disappoint. But spare a penny for the thoughts of the French government and tournament organisers and all those involved in brokering the financial arrangement to ensure five of Scotland’s England-based players are available. Gregor Townsend has described the agreement as “satisfactory” – because as of last Saturday morning he was facing the prospect of having none of them at his disposal – but you cannot escape the fact that Scotland are not at full strength in Paris.
So while organisers can feel relieved that the tournament is not dragging on into the summer, or even next season, along with the air of anticipation of the denouement there is a sense of trepidation. France will be crowned outright champions if they win with a bonus point and by 21 points or more, but if they manage it in the kind of last-gasp fashion of last weekend there will be questions about what might have happened had Scotland had a full squad to choose from.
Certainly, if France are still in the title hunt in the dying stages, neutrals will be happy and it would be yet more compelling evidence for the Six Nations to remain on terrestrial TV with the existing BBC and ITV deal coming to an end. Though given the average margin of victory in the competition – not including Italy fixtures – is fewer than six points, Wales remain heavy favourites to clinch the championship.
As a result, Galthié has been making all the right noises, focusing on attempting to win the match first, the championship second. “We can’t get caught up in the high stakes,” he said. “The key is to play well and win, the rest will depend on how the match goes.” There appears to be some mixed messaging coming out of the French camp this week, however, and it has not gone down well with the Scotland captain, Stuart Hogg. “A lot’s been said, and it’s beginning to hack me off, about them needing 21 points to win the title,” said Hogg. “And I saw someone from their camp talking about them playing for the trophy. As a proud Scotsman that hurt me a lot.”
For Scotland have a stake in the game too, beyond stopping France, and victory could see them climb to second in the table. Doing Wales a favour is not exactly a priority for Scotland but their trips to France will always evoke memories of the last time they won in Paris, in 1999, when a day later they were crowned champions as Scott Gibbs denied England the grand slam, and the title, at Wembley.
Townsend was in that Scotland side 22 years ago and as head coach he is making a habit of ending unwanted runs. They won in Wales last year for the first time since 2002 and the victory at Twickenham in February was their first in 38 years. A rare win in France would be another significant step for this Scotland side. “If we are able to replicate [the] performance against England we will be in with a shout to win the game as that is the best I have seen for the past few years,” said Townsend.
Scotland have not been helped by the late withdrawal of the No 8 Matt Fagerson, meaning a promotion for Nick Haining and a surprise call on to the bench for Ryan Wilson. Still, it has not been lost on France that Scotland have the most miserly defence in the competition. “They’re very well organised, tactically and strategically good,” said Galthié. “Intelligent as well. They’re the best right now. Last year they did well defensively too.”
Patience will be vital for France, then, who against England appeared suckered in to playing from anywhere and against Wales preoccupied with claiming the bonus point from the first whistle. “We work as much on defence as on attack, and vice versa,” said Galthié. “Quite simply because we cannot predict what the match will look like. We can be launched by a big start to the match in attack, or a big defensive period, and it is important to be able to respond in all cases.”