IT was going to take something really special to eclipse Scotland’s historic victory over England at Twickenham at the start of this Six Nations, and their victory here in the delayed final match of the campaign achieved that.
The England win was a more polished all-round performance, but this one was full of courage and tenacity and nerve. Gregor Townsend‘s side shrugged off a disrupted build-up, then the loss of captain Stuart Hogg to the sin-bin for 10 minutes just before half-time, and then the loss of talismanic stand-off Finn Russell to a red-card towards the end, on their way to securing a first win in Paris since 1999.
The Scots came from behind three times, with Duhan van der Merwe‘s dramatic try in the fifth minute of injury time – after 22 phases bombarding the French line – finally sealing the win.
It is a time to celebrate, but it was telling that both Townsend and Hogg spoke afterwards about their frustration with the two games that got away in this championship, against Wales and Ireland at home. Both were eminently winnable and if they had gone the other way then Scotland could have been celebrating their first ever Six Nations. Instead, they ended up fourth in the table, which doesn’t seem like a fair return for what the team has achieved.
France came into the match looking to score four tries and win by 21 points or more in order to pip Wales to the title, but despite spells in both halves when they played some imperious smash-and-grab rugby, they couldn’t shake off their opponents. As the home team’s goal drifted away from them during the final quarter, Scotland roused themselves heroically to roar back from the dead for a richly deserved win.
They needed an eight point winning margin (or a five point margin with four tries) to finish second in the table. It wasn’t to be, but that shouldn’t spoil the moment. This was an excellent achievement in its own right.
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Despite needing a big score, France were clearly determined not to get a head of themselves and opted to take the three points through a Romain Ntamack shot at goal from in from of the posts on 10 minutes rather than go for the try.
The Scots bounced back immediately, with hooker George Turner leading the charge when he broke from the back of a line-out maul, and while the hosts held out on that occasion, the visitors kept the pressure on and grabbed the lead when van der Merwe rolled his sleeves up and burrowed over from close range like an auxiliary flanker. The were more than a hint of a double movement but referee Wayne Barnes didn’t even bother asking the TMO.
Scotland extended the lead when an excellently executed kick into the corner isolated French full-back Brice Dulin, and Jamie Ritchie swallowed him up to win the penalty, which Russell had no problem turning into three more points.
The French were clearly rattled and the Scots had their tails up. Russell and Hogg were torturing their opponents with some razor-sharp kicking, and the dark blue scrum even squeezed a penalty out of their vaunted opponents.
But the tide turned when Julien Marchand got over Ritchie on the deck to win a penalty, and at the next scrum the French decimated the Scots to earn another penalty which Ntamack fired home to narrow the lead to four points.
Ritchie then gave away a penalty when he took Anthony Jelonch out in the air at the restart, and Scotland then gave away four more penalties in quick succession as France bombarded their line. Barnes warned Hogg that a yellow-card was coming, then in the next play Antoine Dupont fired a looping pass out to Damian Penaud on the right wing which caught van der Merwe napping, and the French winger made five vital yards before sending Dulin over. Ntamack nailed the touchline conversion to make 13-10 with four minutes of the half remaining.
Scotland continued to give away penalties like they were going out of fashion, and it was Hogg, himself, who ended up being sent to the sin-bin for going off his feet at a ruck. It had been a torrid last 10 minutes to the first half, but Nick Haining did mange to get up and steal the ball at the five-metre line-out after Hogg’s indiscretion. Going in at the break three points down was a lot better than being eight or even 10 points adrift.
France flew out of the blocks at the start of the second half and 14-man Scotland had to dig deep to hold them out, and they managed that pretty impressively on the while, but they couldn’t do anything to stop a wonderful try created by Virimi Vakatawa‘s sublime offload to Penaud, with the winger then chipping ahead and gathering himself on his way to the line.
Ntamack missed the touchline conversion, meaning Scotland had managed to limit France to five points during that period of being a man down.
Then, once back to full strength, the Scots drove themselves back onto the front foot, earning an offside penalty which allowed Russell to pull it back to a five point game.
A clever move off a Scottish line-out saw Ali Price send Sam Johnson clear, but the centre was pulled down just short, and Hamish Watson was rag-dolled 15 feet backwards as he tried to recycle, but France’s discipline had gone the same way as Scotland’s had at the start of the first half.
A penalty kicked to the corner set up a close-range line-out, but Swan Rebbadj got a hand in to dislodge the ball as Scotland tried to build the maul. Fortunately, the bounce was kind to replacement hooker Dave Cherry, who didn’t need a second invitation to scamper over the line. Russell’s conversion put the Scots two points ahead with 20 minutes to go.
But then the momentum shifted again, and some serious French power led to Rebbadj crashing over for his team’s third try – which put them three points ahead. With 14 minutes to go, they needed 18 points and one more try. A big ask, but you wouldn’t have gambled your mortgage against them at that point.
It looked like the writing was on the wall for Scotland when Russell raised his arm to fend Dulin and Barnes ruled that it was dangerous play, brandishing a red-card at the stand-off, which was harsh but the right decision by the letter of the law. It was a classy move by Russell to seek out Dulin and give him a warm embrace before leaving the field.
The loss of Russell did not end up being as critical as we all initially feared because just a few minutes later replacement French scrum-half Baptiste Serin picked up a yellow for side entry at a ruck, meaning it was 14 versus 14 for the final seven minutes (plus five minutes of injury time).
With 35 seconds left on the clock, France had possession – after fairy brainless chip ahead by Adam Hastings – but then gave away another soft penalty five yards inside Scotland’s half by flopping over the tackle, handing the sort of lifeline the Scots could not have hoped for.
Even then, it looked like Scotland’s chance to make history had passed them by when France won a turnover in their own 22 just a few metres in from the touchline with the game into its second minute of injury time. France were not going to get the winning margin they needed so all Dulin needed to was kick he ball deep into the empty stand, but he decided to run sideways and was tackled, with ended up conceding a turnover in the tackle.
Scotland took full advantage, withHastings sending out a long looping pass which picked out van der Merwe on the left, who stepped inside Penaud and propelled himself over the line. It was his eighth try in 10 caps for Scotland, but the powerful winger would be the first to highlight that this was a triumph of the collective rather than the individual.
France: B Dulin; D Penaud, V Vakatawa (T Thomas 60), A Vincent, G Fickou; R Ntamack, A Dupont (B Serin 71); C Baille (J Gros 56), J Marchand (C Chat 56), M Haouas (U Atonio 61), B Le Roux (R Taofifenau 50), S Rebbadj, A Jelonch (D Cretin 63), G Alldritt, C Ollivon©.
Scotland: S Hogg©; D Graham (H Jones 67), C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; F Russell (A Hastings 71), A Price; R Sutherland (O Kebble 49), G Turner (D Cherry 59), Z Fagerson (S Berghan 63-69), S Skinner (A Craig 75), G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, H Watson, N Haining (R Wilson 67).
France: Try: Dulin, Penaud, Rebbadj; Con: Ntamack; Pen: Ntamack 2.
Scotland: Tries: van der Merwe 2, Cherry; Con: Russell 2, Hastings; Pen: Russell 2.
Scoring sequence (France first): 3-0; 3-5; 3-7; 3-10; 6-10; 11-10; 13-10 (h-t) 18-10; 18-3; 18-18; 18-20; 23-20; 23-25, 23-27.
Yellow cards –
France: Serin (73 mins)
Scotland: Hogg (39mins)
Red cards –
Scotland: Russell (70mins)