DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
A SOBERING experience for Scotland. They were a distant second best here. The gulf in class was vast. By the end, the French were toying with their harassed hosts, who deserve credit for digging in to claim a last minute consolation try.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend said during the week that this was a must-win for his team to stay contenders in this Six Nations. Scotland are clearly a long way off that level, and while you’d still back them to be good enough to despatch Italy in Rome in a fortnight’s time, that is not quite the foregone conclusion which we all bought into three weeks ago. The pressure is certainly on.
One bad performance/result does not make a bad team, and this is not a bad Scotland team. They are just not in the same league as France in full flow – and Les Bleus were a formidable proposition here. Fabien Gathie‘s side don’t have a particularly happy recent history against Scotland, so this performance provided further evidence that they are building something meaningful heading into next year’s World Cup on home soil. Certainly, the atmosphere among the French supporters in the ground suggests that there is a belief about this team which hasn’t always been evident during their more capricious eras.
First up, however, a first Six Nations title since 2010 beckons for the only unbeaten team left in the tournament, but Wales [away] and England [at home] will have something to say about that.
France’s kick-off went out on the full, which might have been a mistake, but may also have been a ploy to secure an early opportunity to pile pressure onto Scotland’s scrum, because it was clear from the start that this was an area the visitors wanted to target. Scotland held on – just – this time although possession was scrappy and Finn Russell‘s snap clearance was charged down, leading to an accidental offside scrum for Scotland from which they conceded a free-kick, and France then demonstrated their solidity on their own ball to launch a scything attack.
Melvyn Jaminet missed a straight-forward opportunity to put his side ahead after Stuart McInally was penalised for going off his feet, but the sizeable and vocal French support at Murrayfield didn’t have to wait long for their opening score, because Antoine Dupont ran a fairly aimless kick from Russell back with real venom a few minutes later, and Paul Willemse finished off.
Russell struck back with an offside penalty to make it 3-7, before a fine 50-22 from Jaminet created the platform for a another terrific French try, with Jonathan Danty crashing up the middle, then some slick hands – particularly from Damian Penaud and prop Cyril Baille to keep the ball in play under serious pressure – sent Yoram Moefana over on the right.
There wasn’t much for the home support to get animated about during this first 20 minutes, but they were brought to their feet when Grant Gilchrist stole line-out ball near his own 22 and Jaminet misjudged Ali Price‘s box-kick, handing Duhan van der Merwe then Chris Harris a chance to gallop in open prairie. Sam Skinner collided with Jaminet as he tried to collect Russell’s pass and France escaped downfield, only for referee Karl Dickson, under pressure from the crowd and the big screen, to belatedly pull play all the way back downfield for a penalty. Correct call: Jaminet had indeed body-checked Skinner without the ball.
Scotland went to the corner and came close to a try off a Price snipe, but he couldn’t ground the ball, so play was brought back for a high tackle and the hosts kept the pressure on before finally getting their try through Rory Darge, hitting a great line coming back against they grain to wrong-foot opposite number Anthony Jelonch.
Russell’s conversion brought it back to a two-point game, and Scotland could have had the lead by the break when some inter-passing behind the gain-line opened up a gap for van der Merwe to burst through. He worked a brilliant scissors with Harris who had men lining up on his left, but the pass was in front of Stuart Hogg and the full-back couldn’t quite collect.
Instead, France awoke from their slumber and surged back to have the last word of the half, with Gael Fickou going over in the corner off an arcing run past some fairly pedestrian Scottish defence.
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The second half started disastrously for Scotland. Mark Bennett, on as a half time substitute for Harris, hit the line hard, but Price was indecisive off the quick recycle and ended up being dispossessed, with France taking full advantage. Penaud kicked ahead and the bounce out-foxing both Hogg and van der Merwe, allowing Danty to sail in for the try.
With France comfortably ahead, the game loosened up, and Scotland did manage to find gaps in their opponents defence, but tended to be out-muscled and dispossessed at the breakdown when they got within striking distance.
On the hour mark, Darge was caught in possession in the middle of the park, and with minimal support he was powerless to stop the ball being ripped away and sent right for Penaud to trot home unchallenged.
And the winger doubled up with six minutes to go with another gift-wrapped effort, collecting Romain Ntamack‘s cross field kick in acres of space and nothing halting his progress to the try line.
A last minute try, created by Blair Kinghorn running int back from deep through France’s half asleep defence, and finished off by van der Merwe, provided some consolation to the hosts.
Scotland: S Hogg; D Graham, C Harris (M Bennett 41), S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell (B Kinghorn 60), A Price (B White 48-57, 68); P Schoeman (O Kebble 60), S McInally (G Turner 55), Z Fagerson (W Nel 55), S Skinner, G Gilchrist (J Hodgson 60), N Haining (A Christe 43) R Darge, M Bradbury.
France: M Jaminet (T Ramo 71); D Penaud, G Fickou, J Danty, Y Moefana; R Ntamack, A Dupont (M Lucu 73); C Baille (J Gros 57), J Marchand (P Mauvaka 53), U Atonio (D Bamba 47), C Woki (D Cretin 67), P Willemse (R Taofifenua 53), F Cros, A Jelonch (T Flament 53), G Alldritt.
Scotland: Try: Darge, van der Merwe; Con: Russell, Hogg; Con: Russell.
France: Willemse, Moefana, Fickou, Danty, Penaud 2; Cons; Jaminet 3.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 07; 3-7; 3-12; 8-12; 10-12; 10-19 (h-t) 10-24; 10-26; 10-31; 10-36; 15-36; 17-36.