IT is something of a surreal situation when the thing that matters least heading into a full Test match is the result.

But that is the position both France, the hosts in Nice tonight, and Scotland find themselves in as their Rugby World Cup preparations step up a gear.

Of course, players are by nature competitive and when the whistle goes to start the game there are 30 men on the field and another 16 waiting to come on who are going to hammer themselves to the last breath to win. It is just that in the bigger picture the result will scarcely even merit a footnote in history.

You saw that four years ago when Scotland’s World Cup preparations wrapped up in Paris. An 80th-minute penalty in front of the posts handed them a decision whether to accept a draw or go for a win – they opted to run the ball, got nowhere and the scoreline finished 19-16 against them. All the same, the mere fact of being in a position to decide whether or not to gamble was enough to raise confidence levels a notch ahead of the tournament proper.

Neither side, after all, are at full strength. There are experiments in both XVs and neither management has wasted time on tactics specifically designed to counter opposition strengths.

“They have picked a good side, a strong side,” was the verdict from Danny Wilson, the Scotland forwards coach on the opposition. “That’s great – an away game in France against a strong side will give us really good opposition.


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“It is our first hit-out. It’s still a Test match and everyone wants to win, but it is also a chance to get people on the field, look at different combinations, try things.

“Any Test match, you want to win. Winning breeds confidence and gives you a stepping stone going into the World Cup but there is also the chance to try a few things, different combinations, things you might take to a World Cup or scratch off because they didn’t work. The other thing for our boys is that you can tell they are ready for a game. There is only so much training you can do without having something to go on. This is our first chance to do that.”

The warm-ups take on a particular focus for this World Cup cycle. In past tournaments, Scotland have started with smaller teams and have had the chance to build up momentum ahead of the key games. This time they have to hit the ground running against Ireland, top seeds in their pool.

Which means the matches are significant for players who expect to feature in that game. For the likes of Duncan Taylor and John Barclay, both returning from long-term injuries, they have to prove to themselves as well as the coaches that a lengthy lay-off has not hurt their ability to deal with Test rugby.


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However, in a meaningless match staking a claim for the opener against Ireland could prove difficult with competition for places fierce in some areas. Take, for example, Jamie Ritchie who was one of the players of the Six Nations for Scotland but is caught in a four- or five-way battle for as few as two places.

Or Rory Hutchison, who is on the bench tonight after a season in which he rose from second-team obscurity to the shortlist for the Young Player of the Year awards in England. He is uncapped but his versatility – he is equally adept at fly-half or either centre roles – could make him a contender for the final 31 if he can handle the step up in level.

There are plenty of similar battles – prop, the back row and the centres are particularly competitive.

The reality, however, is that Gregor Townsend, the head coach, has between 26 and 28 names pencilled in and there are players who know a good game may not be enough – they have to be outstanding to force a rethink.

There is more to it than just selection, though. As Wilson pointed out, there are law tweaks to get used to as well, including another clamp down on tackle height and, crucially from his point of view, a new protocol on setting up scrums.

“It is all about balance and a safe weight distribution before the front-rows engage. We’ve worked on it at training and now we’ve got a first chance to see how it goes in a game,” Wilson said.

“It does make a difference because these props, second-rows and hookers, who played week-in and week-out for years with one process are going to have to change to something else. It is going to take a little bit of getting used to.

“The rest I think will be straightforward – hopefully decent weather and a fast track meaning we can play the game that you all know Scotland want to play.”