Six Nations 2019: Scotland must start well against wounded France - Allan Dell
Allan Dell remembers his one and only Test match in Paris as the most physical game he's ever played in his life. And no wonder.
It was the 2017 Six Nations and the amount of fallers in that game was akin to the Grand National. Greig Laidlaw had his championship ended with an ankle injury; Josh Strauss had his championship ended with a bang to the kidney; John Hardie, John Barclay, Fraser Brown and Alex Dunbar all suffered head knocks.
France won 22-16, but they've won precious little since then.
Paris on Saturday week will be the meeting of the Scots - a team that cannot win this type of game away from home - and the French - who can't seem to win any type of game anywhere anymore. They have lost eight of their last nine and have sunk to 10th in the world rankings. Yet again there's talk of mutiny in the ranks.
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"Does anybody know what's going to happen in Paris?" asks Dell, who played admirably amid the disappointment of the loss to Ireland. "The French clubs have got big players with skill and flair, players who can mix it up, like Toulouse, but it hasn't gone through to the national side. I don't know what's happening there. They don't have the balance right. I don't know what's going wrong,
"Was it [Morgan] Parra calling out the coach?" It was. Parra suggested in the wake of their cataclysmic 44-8 loss to England on Sunday that they're not doing the right things in training. He wasn't the only one who has pointed a finger at the coach Jacques Brunel and his inexperienced back-room.
Camille Lopez, the fly-half, said that the players weren't "alone in this disaster". Sebastian Vahaamahina, the second row, said he was surprised to be told by referee Wayne Barnes that he was captain in the closing minutes of their opening fixture against Wales. "The staff did not warn me," he said.
Midi-Olympique, the sports newspaper, wrote on Monday that a "wind of rebellion rises again in the national team". It quoted an unnamed player as saying: "It was chaos [against England]. Nobody knew what position to play. We were lost on the pitch and tried to ask the bench."
Dell had his own despair to deal with after Murrayfield and he's a little mystified and a little wary of the talk of France in freefall.
"It's typical French," he said. "Wasn't it the 2011 World Cup where the players did something similar? They had a little revolt against the management and nearly went on to win the World Cup. Going by that, it could be quite messy next weekend.
"If we go there and start well and their heads drop and their tails go between their legs then great. But if they get a good start it could be a long day for us. If they get that confidence going... You know how good French players are. When French players have confidence they can do anything."
Not lately they can't, not under recent coaches who have inherited a shambles before somehow making it worse. France have won three of their last 19 Tests. "In the course of the match there is always this fear of winning that resurfaces, these old demons who come back," said Baptiste Serin, their reserve scrum-half.
'We need to make a statement on the road'
With plenty of ghosts of their own to contend with, Scotland's job is to make sure that the demons stay firmly at France's door. As an Edinburgh player, Dell knows what it's like to go to Toulon and win this season. The Glasgow boys have been to Lyon and have done the same. That experience should be a help.
"We pride ourselves on our fitness," said the loose-head, "But the thing is that your fitness gets tested when you're having to make loads of tackles against big men. (As was the case against Ireland when the Scots had to make 226 tackles to Ireland's 172).
"If we can move them around and not give them cheap ball in our half and make sure we don't have to go through the phases where we have to make 200, 250 tackles in a game then I think our fitness will help us. If we execute and play the way we can, I don't think they will cope.
"We haven't been good away from home and we need to make a statement on the road. Wales went to Paris and won. We're confident we can do the same, but if we do what we did against Ireland and we don't take our chances and then give away chances it will be a tough day at the office."
Dell is leading a double live at the moment - first choice for Scotland and second choice for Edinburgh. He's playing out the final months of his time in the capital before moving to London Irish, who are spending big for what will be their near-certain return to the Premiership.
He's also coming back from an injury that laid him low. "I'm starting to feel fit and strong again," he said. "A year ago I wouldn't have been able to make 25 tackles in a game [his total against Ireland]. I might have been finished by 10. I got to 70 minutes and I haven't played 70 minutes for four or five years.
"My attacking game is coming back slowly, but I'd like to get my hands on the ball a bit more.
"I've no regrets about leaving. I needed a change. I'm sad to go - my wife and I love Edinburgh. I had an opportunity to move to Glasgow but this is a fresh start. I spoke to Gregor Townsend and the biggest thing was going down there to improve my Scotland chances, to make myself better and to come back into the camp as a better player."
He's got to survive Paris first. The bodies dropped like flies the last time he was at the Stade and the memory of it is grim, not just the injuries but the weary feeling of another defeat, another win that got away.
Dell is aware that a French revival could spark into life at any time. The days ahead are all about making sure that Scotland don't assist them in their recovery the way they assisted Ireland in theirs.