DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield Stadium – Edinburgh
A SECOND win on the bounce for Scotland, which is not a remarkable achievement in itself – except when viewed in the context of all the missed opportunities and lost causes which have characterised Scotland’s performances in the Six Nations during the last decade.
It is only the third time they have registered back-to-back victories during the Six Nations era. They last managed that relatively modest achievement against Italy and Ireland in 2013, and before that it was against the same opposition way back in 2001.
Remarkably this was their first home win in the Six Nations in eight attempts, and it was certainly a night and day improvement on the timid performance they registered when hosting England at the start of this season’s championship.
With Sean Lamont [who scored two tries the last time Scotland beat France in 2006] not making it off the bench this time, there wasn’t a single Scottish player involved in this success to have previously tasted victory over Les Bleus.
It must be acknowledged that this is a French team in transition. Guy Noves inherited a crackpot of a side when he took over from Philippe St Andre after the World Cup, and with the French club structure severely hindering his time with the players, it was always going to be hard for him to make meaningful improvements in his first season at the helm.
But the Scots could only beat what was put in front of them, and they did so with room to spare. They had to weather a few storms along the way but, after a rather uninspiring start to this campaign, the overarching impression is that the ship is now sailing in the right direction under Vern Cotter.
It didn’t start well for the Scots, with visiting skipper Gulheim Guirado scooting over for his team’s first try after just four minutes and sixteen seconds of play. The French had weathered a brief Scottish onslaught straight from kick-off, but as soon as they got their hands on the ball they were able to pull their opponents’ defensive line apart with disconcerting ease – with wingers Virimi Vakatawa and Wesley Fofana having little problem offloading the ball out of contact to create the space for their energetic captain.
Worse still for Vern Cotter’s men, Finn Russell picked up a head knock during the build-up to that try, and was clearly in no fit state to continue. He was promptly replaced by Peter Horne. To lose your chief playmaker so early on is a potentially devastating blow, so it says a lot about the growing maturity of this side that they did not allow this to interrupt their overall game-plan.
Scotland steadied themselves and struck back through a Laidlaw penalty from right in front of the sticks, after Alexandre Flanquart was guilty of covering the ball with his arm as he lazed at the bottom of ruck. The home team then took the lead when their skipper knocked over another three points from almost exactly the same spot, after a collapsed French scrum.
Their noses were ahead, but the Scots were a distant second at this point in terms of posing a threat with the ball in hand. Fofona sniffed out some space and asked a few questions on the right touchline, before a quick tap penalty from Maxime Machenaud had the Scots in disarray just before the half hour mark, and Vakatawa clearly thought he was away after a quick-line-out caught the Scots snoozing – but referee Glen Jackson called him back when he spotted a knock-on.
However, the Scottish scrum was well on top, which gave them some invaluable breathing space, and when things eventually clicked they took full advantage, with an electrifying three minute onslaught putting them firmly into the driving seat.
First Richie Gray and Duncan Taylor did the hard yards to create the opportunity for Stuart Hogg to step back inside Gael Fickou and stretch over the line.
And almost straight from the restart, Duncan Taylor took a quick tap penalty on his own ten yard line and rampaged the full sixty yards up the touchline to score in the corner. As the stadium erupted, Jackson asked for the TMO to have a look at some jostling amongst the chasing pack. The video evidence looked more like footage from a low level national hunt race, with runners and riders pulling and shoving and tripping their rivals. Laidlaw was lucky to not be penalised for tugging at Wenceslas Lauret’s jersey, Hogg got in the way of a couple of French chasers when he tripped over, while Horne could also have been accused of running interference.
Jackson took it all in and didn’t take long to decide that none of this merited chalking the score off, with Laidlaw slotting the conversion (far trickier than the one he missed just a few minutes earlier) from the right touchline.
France bounced back, and they didn’t have to build too much pressure before a gap opened up inside WP Nel, which Fickou was only too happy to exploit on the stroke of half-time.
A monstrous Hogg penalty from just inside his own half got the Scots off to a flyer after the break, but the French bounced back with a three pointer from Machenaud, who had inherited kicking responsibilities from the misfiring Trinh-Duc.
The French piled some serious pressure on the Scots with a couple of close-range line-outs. With the Scots being penalised after the first one, when they prematurely charged out the line, Laidlaw had to make sure he timed his run perfectly a few moments later when he went after Trinh-Duc, but he got it right and Dunbar was on hand to tidy up the loose ball.
It was rather frustrating that, having done so well to help relieve the pressure a few second earlier, Dunbar then gave away a penalty for unnecessary shenanigans in a lost ruck – allowing Machenaud to narrow the gap to just three points with his second successful penalty of the afternoon.
Moving into the final quarter, it was too close for comfort, and with the French beginning to edge it in terms of territory and possession, you couldn’t help feeling that a three point cushion would not be enough. The Scots needed to do something decisive, and they were up to the challenge – with Hogg’s long penalty clearance forcing Scott Spedding to put the ball out on his own 22. From that field position they mounted a series of punishing phases.
Richie Gray nearly broke through but was pulled down just short of the line. The Scots recycled, and when Laidlaw cut out the middle men with his looping pass from the base of the ruck, Hogg knew there was an opportunity outside him – jumping up to blindly flip the ball over his head into the grateful hands of Tim Visser, who didn’t need a second invitation to grab his eleventh international touch-down.
Yet another collapsed French scrum with seven minutes to go allowed Laidlaw to extend Scotland’s lead to eleven points. Having sucked up fifteen minutes of pressure, the home team had bounced back like seasoned winners and were now eleven points to the good – a margin which proved to be unassailable.
The French rallied towards the end, and Fickou hit a great line to dissect the Scottish defence, but Sebastian Bezy’s pass was marginally forward. The visitors now knew that they were chasing a lost cause. Twice they were penalised at ruck time as they desperately tried to build momentum and their scrum continued to struggle.
The Scots, who were determined to ensure that their win was as decisive on the scoreboard as it was on the field of play, defended during that final five minutes with an intensity which would have done them credit in the opening few phases of the game. A thoroughly deserved victory was in the bag.
Scotland: Try: Hogg, Taylor, Visser; Con: Laidlaw; Pen: Laidlaw 3, Hogg.
France: Try: Guirado, Fickou; Con: Machenaud; Pen: Machanaud 2
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor, A Dunbar, T Visser; F Russell (P Horne 4), G Laidlaw; A Dickinson, R Ford (S McInally 67), W Nel (M Low 72), R Gray (T Swinson 78), J Gray, J Barclay, J Hardie, J Strauss (R Wilson 61).
France: S Spedding; W Fofana, G Fickou, M Mermoz (M Medard 69), V Vakatawa; F Trinh-Duc (J Pilsson 69), M Machenaud (S Bezy 74); J Poirot (U Atonio 61), G Guirado (C Chat 69), R Slimani (V Pelo 61, J Poirot 64),Y Maestri, A Flanquart, W Lauret, D Chouly, Y Camara (L Goujon 64).
Referee: G Jackson (NZL)