AT the highest levels in rugby, an inch is as good as a mile when dealing with inaccuracies, and a 30 second lapse in concentration can undo 79½ minutes of good work.
These truths of the game have haunted Scottish rugby during the last two decades, and France delivered Gregor Townsend’s team with another painful reminder of how games can spin on a sixpence at Murrayfield this [Sunday] afternoon.
While France were the dominant side throughout, Scotland didn’t ever let the scoreboard get away from them, and the difference between a 15-22 loss and a hard-fought draw (or even a win) came down to a couple of key moments.
Things you can get away with against the likes of Georgia, Italy and even Wales at the moment, will come back and bite you on the backside against top rank opposition, which France undoubtedly are these days.
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“I thought for 78 minutes of that game we were in control,” said captain Stuart Hogg afterwards, which might have been pushing it slightly. “I thought we nullified everything that France were coming here to do – but, unfortunately, we’ve made a couple of mistakes and you can’t do that in international rugby. It’s as simple as that.
“We shut France down. They wanted to bring a running game but all they did was kick to us. We can take a huge amount of confidence away from the way we defended but there are some disappointed boys there, and rightly so.
“The positive thing is we realise where we’ve made mistakes so we can go back to the drawing boards and try to make amends,” he added. “But the frustrating thing is we know we’re a lot better than that.
“It’s fine people making mistakes but it’s the fact that sometimes we compound our errors and that’s what cost us. At one point, we went from being in a position to score a try to virtually 90 seconds later conceding three points. In that time, we gave away three penalties which is compounding errors and not what we’re about.”
The key moment in the match was man-of-the-match Virimi Vakatawa’s try just after half-time, when France caught Scotland cold off a set-move from a scum near halfway, which scrum-half Ali Price put his hand up to take responsibility for being sucked in by opposite Antoine Dupont which helped create the space for Gael Fickou and Vincent Rattez to exploit in the middle of the park.
“It was clever play,” said Price. “I read the same play in the first half and did my role well, but that time I just over-read it and it was smart by France to attack that link between our 10 and the scrum.
“I think we’re making strides,” he added. “France came here as probably one of the in-form sides in the world and, yeah, we’ve come up short – but it was within a score, in a game where we certainly had chances to get back level, if not go ahead at times.”
Another key moment came right at the end when Hogg overcooked a kick to the corner and ended up letting France off the hook when Scotland could have spent the last play of the match pushing for a draw through their line-out drive.
“Yeah, I made a schoolboy error, it’s as simple that,” conceded the Scotland captain. “We’re old enough and ugly enough now to realise we’ve made a mistake. I don’t need to be told a million times about it.”
Neither head coach Townsend, nor captain Hogg, was prepared to get too worked up about the incident just before the break when French hooker Camille Chat’s forearm made contact with Jonny Gray’s neck, which referee Wayne Barnes – in consultation with TMO – decided did not constitute foul play meriting a penalty, let alone a yellow-card.
“I think you can potentially look at the Virimi Vakatawa one on myself earlier on [as well],” said Hogg. “There’s things happening in front of the officials, they’ve analysed it, reviewed it and seen what was going on. On another day it could have been something different.
“It’s pointless me standing here saying what it’s going to be because ultimately nothing happened during the game.
“I don’t’ really have a view,” was Townsend’s assessment. “It obviously warranted looking at but Wayne is an experienced official. He called it as nothing more than a carry with the arm bracing himself against contact. Fortunately, there was no injury. That’s all that can be said about that incident.”
The Scotland squad will take the start of the coming week off – although there will be optional gym sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday – before reconvening on Thursday to start the build-up to their final Autumn Nations Cup match the following weekend, which will probably be against Ireland in Dublin, but could also be against England at Twickenham or even Wales in Llanelli.
Next weekend’s final pool match against Fiji being cancelled due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the Pacific Islanders’ squad is disappointing because it means a number of fringe players who have had no or little game-time will miss out on a chance to get some international minutes under their belt, but on the plus side it does mean that the squad will be fully refreshed and energised as they set about trying to finish this Autumn campaign in style.
The only new injury concern is Blair Kinghorn, who headed to hospital straight after the match to get a potentially broken finger x-rayed, while Townsend expressed hope that loose-head prop Rory Sutherland could come back into the selection mix due to the ankle injury he picked up against Italy not being as severe as first feared.
Edinburgh stand-off Jaco van der Walt is also set to join the group, having now qualified to play for Scotland on residency grounds, and completed quarantine following his recent trip home to South Africa to get married.
The coaching teams at Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors will be hoping that the Fiji call-off means that some Scotland squad players are released to play PRO14 rugby next weekend, but Townsend was non-committal.
“Edinburgh play on Monday, which might make things tricky,” he said. “Given that the English season has now started, phone calls will probably be had over the next day or two.
“We’re conscious that players who were going to get an opportunity next week now won’t. If it works out for them to go back to clubs, we can make that happen.”