DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield Stadium
A STUNNING second-half fightback by Scotland was all the more impressive because it was achieved despite playing with 14-men for the last half hour.
Let’s not worry too much about the extent to which this second string French side lost their way once their bench was cleared during the third quarter, the home team deserve enormous credit for showing tenacity and problem-solving ability to turn things around after a woefully one-sided first half. This result will provide a major confidence boost to the Scots as they move forward in their World Cup preparation, and the jubilant scenes amongst the home coaching team at full-time underlined just how important this result was psychologically to the Scots.
Alas, it was a win which came at a considerable cost to Gregor Townsend‘s squad. They lost first choice scrum-half Ben White to an ankle injury midway through that harrowing opening 40, and there will now be an anxious wait for a medical update.
Worse still, tight-head prop Zander Fagerson – the anchor of the Scots scrum and arguably their most important forward – picked up a red-card 10 minutes into the second half for head-on-head contact with French hooker Pierre Bourgarit. The disciplinary hearing will be this week and the concern is that this is not the first time the Scot has been sent off for this sort of thing against Wales during the 2021 Six Nations, which could affect the level of mitigation the panel are prepared to offer.
According to World Rugby regulations: “Cases involving an Ordering Off shall, where reasonably practicable, be heard within 48 hours and other than in exceptional circumstances, no later than 72 hours of the conclusion of the Match in which the Player was Ordered Off.”
Bourgarit knocked the ball on almost straight from kick-off, France were penalised for driving upwards at the scrum, and Finn Russell added credence to the rumours that he’s suddenly got all sensible on us by opting to go for the posts, nudging his team into a three point lead with as many minutes played. But that’s as good as it got for Scotland during the first half.
After a cagey eight minutes, featuring lots of aerial ping-pong, France flashed their teeth for the first time with a fine counter-attack try off an unpressurised White kick down the middle of the park. Slick hands put Scots-qualified debutant Emilie Gailleton into space on the right, he lured Duhan van der Merwe in before offloading back inside to fellow new boy Louis Bielle-Biarrey, then came Matthieu Jalibert in support and Baptiste Couilloud finished off.
France continued to look the more assured and hungrier, and soon bullied their way back into the home 22, with Yoram Moefana‘s dancing feet leaving van der Merwe rooted to the spot. To his credit, the big winger did well to get back and barge the Frenchman into touch as he dived for the line.
It remained one-way traffic, and France did finally score again on 24 minutes when hard running and tidy hands saw Bielle-Biarrey dart over on the left.
At one point, Scotland’s line-out maul got marched backwards and turned towards the touchline, leaving White with a near impossible task of trying to feed Russell – but rather than instructing the big boys to sort it out, he tried anyway, and it took some frantic scrambling to rescue the situation.
The hosts were clearly rattled and when they did manage to get their vaunted backline moving, with Russell looping round to send Kinghorn on a gallop, the next phase fell apart thanks to a wild pass back in-field from White.
In fairness, the scrum-half – who had been clobbered high by Ethan Dumortier after the whistle a few minutes earlier – may have been struggling by this point, because he soon limped off and then disappeared down the tunnel with a heavily bandaged ankle, which is a big concern ahead of the final World Cup squad being confirmed over the next week and a half.
France got their third try just before the break when a series of penalties conceded by the Scots accompanied by a series of powerful drives from the visitors culminated in the immense Cameron Woki forcing his considerable frame over the whitewash.
The 5-1 turnover count in France’s favour at half-time told the story of the first half.
Things started to look up straight from the restart with Scotland finally zipping through a series of attacking phases before Russell angled a kick rightward into the in-goal area, with Darcy Graham managing to nip in ahead of Dumortier to provide the finishing touch – the try finally being awarded after a fairly laborious review by the TMO.
Then came Fagerson’s costly head-on-head collision with Bourgarit. Referee Ben O’Keeffe explaining that the yellow card he was showing would be upgraded to a red if the Foul Play Review Officer – aka the Bunker – decided it was worthy of the ultimate sanction. Inevitably that is exactly what happened.
Despite this setback, Scotland managed to claw their way to just four points adrift a few minutes later, when Graham and Ewan Ashman both carried hard in heavy traffic before Pierre Schoeman burst round the side of a ruck and over the line.
And it looked like the hosts had taken the lead when a looping pass from George Horne sent Kinghorn over on the right – but that try was chalked off before Russell had a chance to slot the conversion due to the eagle-eyed TMO spotting a Graham knock-on earlier in the move.
All the momentum was, however, was with the 14-men of Scotland, with France having cleared their bench and lost their way. Eventually, the relentless pressure inside the visiting 22 paid off when replacement hooker Dave Cherry burrowed over off the back of a line-out maul, although Russell couldn’t add the touchline conversion meaning that the home lead was a single point with 15 minutes to go.
A 72nd minute Russell penalty after Horne was blocked at a ruck eased further ahead before France spent the final five minutes camped deep in Scots territory.
The Scottish scrum was under serious pressure before France opted not to pack-down again and kick a penalty to the corner instead, only to find that there was no way through that route.
An excellent low tackle from WP Nel and brilliant jackal from Rory Darge brought the final whistle, prompting jubilant scenes on the pitch and in the stands, not least from the Scotland coaching team who looked like they had just won the World Cup.
Scotland: B Kinghorn; D Graham, H Jones, S Tuipulotu (C Redpath 57), D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White (G Horne 30); P Schoeman (J Bhatti 57), E Ashman (57), Z Fagerson, R Gray, G Gilchrist (S Cummings 71), M Fagerson, H Watson (R Darge 57), J Dempsey (W Nel 57).
France: B Duli; L Bielle-Biarrey, E Gailleton, Y Moefana, E Dumortier (A Vincent 57); M Jalibert (A Hastoy 6), B Couilloud ( B Serin 68); J Gros (R Wardi 55), P Bourgarit (P Mauvaka 55), D Bamba ( S Falatea 44), C Woki, B Chalureau (P Willemse 55), P Boudehent, S Macalou (D Cretin 55), Y Tanga.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand).
Scotland: Try: Graham, Schoeman, Cherry; Con: Russell 2; Pen: Russell 2.
France: Try: Couilloud, Bielle-Biarrey, Woki; Con: Jalibert 3.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 3-0; 3-5; 3-7; 3-12; 3-14; 3-19; 3-21 (h-t) 8-21; 10-21; 15-21; 17-21; 22-21; 25-21.
Red cards –
Scotland: Fagerson (50 mins)