SOMETIMES in life (and in sport), you don’t get what you deserve. Scotland are entitled to feel hard done by after Saturday’s heart-wrenching defeat to France at Murrayfield, and it stings even more because it is the second time in as many weeks that they have been denied a try at the death by the TMO.
But in any clear-eyed analysis, Gregor Townsend, his coaching team and his match-day squad must acknowledge that they shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for the final 16-20 score-line, having taken their foot off Les Bleus’ throat midway through the second half, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to one unpredictable referee decision in the final minute going the wrong way.
As co-captain Finn Russell said immediately after the final whistle: “We can’t let the referee decide what happens in the game. It is up to us to play better and make these matches a victory.”
A fair point, but worth noting that Russell played a leading role in allowing France to gain the scoreboard advantage midway through the second half, having been hapless and hopeless in about equal measure – at least in an attacking sense – up until that point.
Whether it was by accident or design, Scotland ended up playing a game of kick-tennis which neutralised all the advantages they had previously enjoyed in terms of cohesion, focus and desire to play positive rugby. They lost their structure and for a crucial period they lost the plot.
The game definitively shifted to an aerial rather than a ground battle just after Scotland had stretched into a 16-10 lead through a second successful Russell penalty on 57 minutes – but the emphasis at this stage was on contestable and space finding kicks.
Then Russell launched an audacious drop-goal attempt from halfway on 62 minutes, which was perhaps an indication that the contrary side of his personality was getting the better of the disciplined, game-plan orientated side.
A minute later, the quality of rugby descended into a snore-fest, with the ball looping back and forward between deep kickers/receivers six times, before Russell took a 10 second breather then launched an ambitious 40-yard clearance into touch.
France’s response was to take a quick-throw and they made good ground with ball in hand. Did this push Scotland further towards indulging that low-energy, low-ambition kick strategy which had the Murrayfield crowd booing in protest.
Eventually, in the 67th minute, France’s Tomas Ramos took his time in the same way as Russell had a few minutes earlier, but in this instance he broke the monotony by choosing to run the ball back instead. A neat exchange of passes with Yoram Moefana helped make good ground, before the full-back prodded a scuffed grubber forward which slapdash Scotland made a hash of tidying up, with Grant Gilchrist scooping the ball between his legs five yards diagonally backwards to nobody, then Russell appeared on the scene to deliver a wild fly-hack of the loose-ball straight into Pierre Schoeman’s crown jewels.
The Scottish prop did well to absorb the impact with not much more than a grimace, and Chris Paterson in commentary wisely stifled a snigger because while this was a comedy of errors, it was no laughing matter from a Scottish perspective.
The accidental offside handed France a scrum which proved to be the launchpad for Louis Bielle-Biarrey to streak past Scotland’s unconnected defence for the match-winning try.
“At 16-10, the game that was presented to us – the game of kick and stay in front of the kicker – we dealt with that fine,” claimed Townsend, after another second half slump from his team.
“It’s not really a case of whether it suited us or not – a wet ball doesn’t suit teams, so you need to adapt,” he later added.
“Finn Russell, Harry Paterson and Ben White were the main people involved in terms of making the decisions to kick, and Finn could have waited ten minutes, held the ball and the game would have ended,” he reasoned.
“I’ve complained about this law a year ago when we were playing France. I think it’s a terrible part of the game. We saw it in the Bath versus Gloucester game [five weeks ago] with 12 kicks in a row [two kicked by Russell].
“We don’t want to be a team who takes part in that, so a couple of times we kicked the ball out, and a couple of times Harry ran with it.”
Townend is bemoaning what has come to be known as ‘Dupont’s Law’ – ironically named after France’s talismanic scrum-half and erstwhile captain who is currently on sabbatical playing sevens in the hope of becoming an Olympian in Paris later this year, and who is widely acknowledged as one of the most entertaining and innovative players in the history of the game.
It is actually a loophole (rather than a law), initially exploited by Dupont at Toulouse after he figured out that players in an offside position after a kick don’t actually have to retreat until they are onside according to the current law book. Instead, they can stay static (so long as they start more than 10 metres back from where the ball has come down) until the catcher of the ball either runs five metres, kicks or passes, at which point they are deemed to be onside once again.
That means that it is possible to cover both the backfield and frontline at the same time after a kick, leaving the catcher stranded between a rock a hard place. As soon as he (or she) moves five-yards to counter-attack, all those 10 or 11 players in the frontline are back in the game, so the odds are stacked against the ball-carrier. However, if you choose to kick long, the backfield is policed by as many as four or five catchers, so finding grass is next to impossible.
It turns into a game of cat-and-mouse which bores paying spectators, and on Saturday it derailed Scotland’s momentum.
However, there are ways to break the cycle with a bit of cunning and a dose of courage, as France demonstrated in the lead-up to their second try on Saturday, and Wales demonstrated the week before when Cameron Winnett stuck a high ball up which he chased and won back himself.
Duhan van der Merwe is one of the most celebrated broken-field runners in the game, so why not have him lined up in the back-field ready to take the ball off the catcher at full-gallop to see if he can replicate his long-range try-scoring exploits from Twickenham in 2023 and the Principality Stadium in 2024?
France’s line-out was a shambles on Saturday so why not kick the ball into the stand and try to pressurise them there?
Scotland were well aware that France might want to turn this game into a kicking battle, and they had the personnel to stop that from happening if they really wanted to.
It feels like at six points ahead, they decided they had done enough against a poor French side so were happy to see the game turn into a non-event and wait out the clock. It was a big risk with less than a converted score cushion – it was also an unnecessary risk – and they got their fingers burned.
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