Preview: Scotland vs France

Victory over an embattled France is not beyond Scotland on Saturday, but success at Murrayfield demands a much-improved performance.

Any Scottish fan will tell you that rugby's most tired of clichés – 'it depends which France turn up' – rings almost as true for their team as it does their cross-Channel cousins.

In Scott Johnson, they have a coach whose own propensity for entertainment, absurdity and nonchalance in equal measure matches the ups and downs of their rugby.

Kelly Brown, the captain harshly banished from the previous two match-day squads, returns to the starting line-up as skipper on Saturday. Still playing in his second-best position on the openside flank, Brown's athleticism will be a crucial addition to an imbalanced back row packed with power and dynamism, but short on breakdown guile.

Chris Cusiter – the pick of Scotland's scrumhalves – is unlucky to miss out on selection; Johnson's continued backing of Greig Laidlaw suggests he is not yet ready to saddle young duo Duncan Weir and Stuart Hogg with the burden of Test goal-kicking duties.

Ex-Scotland veteran Nathan Hines rightly highlighted the scrummage as a potentially decisive battleground this week. The Scots struggled to match the Italian eight up front in Rome, but Geoff Cross's introduction just before half-time shored up the tighthead side, and Euan Murray's sizeable presence on the bench is a major boost.

Meanwhile, France coach Philippe Saint-André is without his entire first-choice back row – Thierry Dusautoir and Yannick Nyanga are injured, while Saint-André axed Louis Picamoles for disrespecting referee Alain Rolland in Cardiff – so has selected a new trio. It's a laudable but gutsy move from the boss to intentionally do without the superhuman ball-carrying of Picamoles, and another to task much-vaunted 2.03m Perpignan second-row Sébastien Vahaamahina to fill the void on the blindside flank, a position he has played only once internationally.

Indeed, much will depend on whether the French pack, posted missing in Wales, pitch up at Murrayfield frothing at the mouth and ready for a scrap. Nicolas Mas has not adjusted especially well to the law changes at scrum-time, but remains a fearful prospect in the tight alongside Thomas Domingo. Skipper Pascal Papé needs a big game too: the lock cannot match the leadership qualities of the sidelined Dusautoir, and let his frustrations get the better of him in round three.

Out wide, France have the upper hand though bereft of the dazzling creativity of Wesley Fofana at inside centre. It is also quite incredible that Saint-André continues to prefer the cumbersome stodge of Mathieu Bastareaud to Gaël Fickou's game-breaking flair in midfield.

Scotland must target the inexperienced half-back pairing of Maxime Machenaud and Jules Plisson, cut down their time on the ball and hope to force errors.

Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Dave Denton, 7 Kelly Brown (c), 6 Johnnie Beattie, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Ryan Grant.
Subs: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Al Dickinson, 18 Euan Murray, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans.

France – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Subs: 18 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Antoine Claassen, 21 Jean-Marc Doussain, 22 Remi Tálès, 23 Gaël Fickou.

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Photo: John Berry/Getty Images

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