Scotland have done the hard bit. A first victory in Cardiff in 22 years should mean the rest of the championship is plain sailing. Of course, with Scotland, nothing is so simple. France and England are next, both at Murrayfield. Scotland have beaten the former in three out of the last four home matches in the Six Nations, and they have beaten the latter three times in a row home and away. But it is when they are forecast to win that Scotland are liable to disappoint.
They are not really predicted to beat France this weekend. The bookies have them as four-point underdogs, just as they had them four-point favourites to overturn that long history of failure in Wales. So kudos to Scotland for winning last weekend when they were expected to. Now we might say the pressure is off …
That 27-26 victory over a young Wales team was almost perfect from a psychological point of view. No Scot will be carried away, having watched their 27-0 lead a couple of minutes into the second half evaporate to one point with a full 10 minutes still to play.
That they negotiated those last nervous moments without mishap – indeed coming within a whisker of scoring a fourth try of their own – was reassuring and not something we might always have taken for granted from Scotland – an example of which was their surrender of a 10-point lead with less than five minutes to play in Cardiff in 2010, when they somehow conceded 17 points. Better still, the 26 unanswered points they conceded last weekend might make their historic win actually feel more like a defeat.
The last time Scotland played France at Murrayfield in the Six Nations, two years ago, was the only one of the last four they have lost in Edinburgh against Les Bleus. France went on to win the grand slam that year and were as impressive as at any time, when they picked off their hosts to score 36 points in a match they could not be said to have dominated. Scotland missed a priceless opportunity to take the lead just before half-time, when Stuart Hogg could not quite gather Chris Harris’s long pass with the line begging. The French countered immediately with tries either side of half-time.
That was as galling a defeat as Scotland have suffered in an era full of agony. The one bright spot was the energetic performance of Rory Darge in his first start. The Glasgow flanker, now co-captain, returns to the team this weekend having recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of the Wales game.
He shares the captaincy with Finn Russell and replaces the man who had been captain right up to last year’s World Cup. Jamie Ritchie drops out of the squad altogether. Luke Crosbie, the other flanker last weekend, is also out, having picked up a championship-ending injury against Wales. Jack Dempsey comes in at No 8, and Matt Fagerson moves round to the flank. The other loss to Scotland last week was that of Richie Gray, another casualty from Cardiff who will play no further part in this Six Nations. He is neatly replaced by Grant Gilchrist, who returns to the second row following suspension.
One second-row returns from suspension, another is banished. Paul Willemse will be missing from France’s lineup, due to the two yellow cards for high tackles he received in France’s loss to Ireland (the latter upgraded to red anyway). Gilchrist was suspended for the same. What is it about these 2m tall, 120kg players and their struggles to adjust body height at the last split-second?
Cameron Woki comes in for Willemse, but the more eye-catching inclusion for France is on the left wing, where the electric Louis Bielle-Biarrey comes in for Yoram Moefana. Everyone can applaud the inclusion of a specialist winger over that of a converted centre. This one sets up a delicious confrontation between two enterprising sets of outside-backs.
Kyle Rowe remains at full-back for Scotland, where he shone during their purple patch against Wales, while Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe ran amok outside him. The peerless Damian Penaud opposite him knows all about that too.
Regardless, this fixture is never boring. France were well beaten in Marseille by Ireland, so have reputations of their own to defend. They know all about the agonies of see-sawing fortune too. Round two is set to go off with a bang.