DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
REALITY bit for Gregor Townsend’s men when their run of five wins in a row hit the buffers against a French side who dominated them physically and kept their discipline at key moments.
This was an arm-wrestle, dominated by often conservative kicking and determined defence, and there can be no real complaints about the outcome, even if Scotland were still within striking distance and had two opportunities to salvage a draw at the end.
Scotland now look set to finish second in Pool B of this Autumn Nations Cup, which means they will probably face Ireland in Dublin in the 3rd/4th place play-off in a fortnight’s time, although a freak set of results could mean it is either England or Wales.
The big positive Scotland can take out of this match is that, after a wobbly start, they were never really in danger of being totally overrun by a French team who represented a real step-up in class to the other sides faced in recent weeks.
On the negative side, they struggled to really impose themselves both sides of the ball and, if truth be told, the final score-line flattered them, because it was France who left two of three gilt-edged try-scoring opportunities out on the park.
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France dominated the opening exchanges and helped themselves to a six-point lead through two Thomas Ramos penalties. They might have been further ahead but Virimi Vakatawa couldn’t quite get hold of the ball as it bobbled in the in-goal area following a neat prod through by Gael Fickou.
Despite struggling to make meaningful headway in the tight exchanges, the hosts bounced back to level the scores with a couple of Duncan Weir penalties (for a lazy offside against Demba Bamba and an illegal jackal by Camille Chat), and the pendulum continued to swing back and forth.
Matthieu Jalibert drilled home a long-range drop-goal to make 6-9, Weir fired over his third penalty of the afternoon when Dylan Cretin interfered with Ali Price at the base of a ruck to make it 9-9, Matt Fagerson was penalised for not releasing on the deck straight from the restart allowing Ramos to take the score to 9-12, and Weir squared it with penalty number four just three minutes before he break.
Scotland spent the final few minutes in the half under serious pressure, with their overpowered scrum conceding a penalty which France kicked to the corner, but when Vakatawa was held up over the line the home side was able to escape down the tunnel with it still level.
That was the second time the flying French centre got the line without getting the ball down during the first half, and he made absolutely sure of it being third time lucky in the second minute of the second half, when a first-phase strike-move saw Fickou release Vincent Rattez with a neat inside pass, before Vakatawa showed tremendous pace and power to hold off Blair Kinghorn and Stuart Hogg on his way to the line.
Scotland kept in touch with Weir kicking another offside penalty, but France looked the stronger side – squeezing the hosts with their maul, and stretching them with their back-play – and they will have been frustrated that they emerged from a strong spell with only another Ramos penalty to show all the good stuff they did.
With just over four minutes to go, Scotland had a chance to salvage a draw, when Duhan van der Merwe pressurised – pushed – Fickou into conceding a five-metre line-out, but possession was scrappy and the French swamped Jamie Ritchie, who then compounded the penalty he had conceded to not releasing by getting his team marched five-metres further backwards for pushing an opponent in the face as they tussled on the deck.
There was still time for another Scottish opportunity, when Vakatawa was penalised on the deck, but skipper Hogg overcooked his kick to the corner and the chance was lost. Scotland had to make do with a losing bonus-point.
Scotland: S Hogg; B Kinghorn (S Maitland 62), C Harris, S Johnson (D Taylor 73), D van der Merwe; D Weir, A Price; O Kebble (J Bhatti 68), F Brown (G Turner 68), S Berghan (Z Fagerson 44), S Cummings, J Gray (S Skinner 68), J Ritchie, H Watson (B Thomson 62), M Fagerson.
France: T Ramos; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, G Fickou, V Rattez (A Vincent 71); M Jalibert, A Dupont; J Gros (C Baille 54), C Chat (J Marchand 54), D Bamba (M Haouas 56), B Le Roux, R Taofifenua (P Willemse 62), D Cretin, C Ollivon, G Alldritt.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Scotland: Pens: Weir 5.
France: Try: Vakatawa; Con: Ramos; Pens: Ramos 4; DG: Jalibert
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-3; 0-6; 3-6; 6-6; 6-9; 9-9; 9-12; 12-12 (h-t) 12-17; 12-19; 15-19; 15-22.