DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
MOST of the second half was a dull kick-fest, but it ended with high drama and ultimately heartbreak for Scotland when what would have been the match winning try by Sam Skinner was not awarded due a lack of evidence that the ball had been grounded.
Speaking immediately afterwards, co-captain Finn Russell said he disagreed with the decision but didn’t blame the match officials for his side not managing to back-up last weekend’s Six Nations opening weekend win over Wales in Cardiff.
“I think it was a tough second half. The whole game was an arm-wrestle. Obviously France came out on the winning side of that,” he said. “Personally, I believe that was a try, but that’s up to the referee to decide. We’ve got to take this defeat on the chin and we’ve got to get better for England [at Murrayfield in a fortnight’s time]. 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.”
In the cold light of day, Scotland will rue their failure to build on their positive first half showing by being sucked into a kicking battle after the break, which allowed France to first get a foothold in the game and then snatch the lead for the first time in the contest through a moment of magic from Louis Bielle-Biarrey in the 69th minute.
Scotland were forced into a last minute reshuffle of their back three after Kyle Steyn pulled out of the team due to his wife being in labour, meaning Kyle Rowe shifted from full-back to the right wing with Edinburgh’s Harry Paterson called in at full-back to make only his eighth start (ninth appearance) in professional rugby.
Somewhat predictably, the new boy was tested almost immediately, with French scrum-half Maxime Lucu sending up a box straight from kick-off receipt, and Paterson was equal to the challenge, collecting cleanly and recycling despite a thumping tackle from Damian Penaud.
Another promising omen was Rory Darge winning a jackal penalty a few minutes later, and Scotland then surged into the lead with an excellent team try. It was initiated by Duhan van der Merwe getting a hand to a high ball, with Darge scooping up and thundering into the heart of France’s defence. Pierre Schoeman kept momentum going, then slick hands from White through Finn Russell, Sione Tuipulotu and van der Merwe gave Paterson a gap which he scooted through, before Huw Jones took the inside pass and fed White, who had run a classic scrum-half support line and did well to collect the ball off his shoulder then slide home.
France responded in quick order when Thomas Ramos slipped through Rowe’s grasp and carried into the strike zone, prompting a short spell of pressure which led to an offside penalty being awarded against Grant Gilchrist. Ramos kicked the three easy points from in front of the posts.
The visitors threatened again when Gael Fickou burst the line but van der Merwe did brilliantly to not just get back for the try-saving tackle a yard from the Scottish line, but get to his feet to make a crucial interception off the quick recycle, then send a 50-yard clearance downfield from an impossibly tight ankle.
The French players squawked in vain for a high-tackle and then confirmed their lack of focus when the Scott Cummings stole the subsequent line-out, and Scotland soon restored the seven point gap on the scoreboard with an offside penalty kicked by Russell.
And hosts stretched their lead to 10 points with another offside penalty kicked by their stand-off, who had just swung play from his own 22 to the opposition’s 22 with two excellent touch-finders.
France bounced back in familiar style with their big forwards softening up the Scots defence before the ball was sent leftward to the unmarked Fickou, who was always going to score despite Jones’ best efforts to get across for the miracle tackle.
Scotland spent the final few minutes of the half hammering their opponents’ line and the desperate visitors conceded a series of ruck and offside penalties. then lost tight-head prop Uini Atonio to a yellow-card for a no-arms challenge on Matt Fagerson which resulted in shoulder to head contact. But the decision to attack the scrum directly in front of the sticks backfired when it ended up collapsing and referee Nic Berry raised his arm in France’s favour.
After the tribulations of last week, Scotland will have been delighted to be on the right side of the penalty-count (7-2) but frustrated that their scoreboard advantage was only three points.
Scotland started the second half in purposeful fashion and Penaud had to look lively to get to a loose ball behind his own line ahead of White.
France head coach Fabien Galthie cleared his bench during the third quarter, and one double substitution brought two second-rows with famous rugby heritages onto the park, in the shape of Alexandre Roumat (son of 1990s Les Bleus great Olivier) and Passolo Tuilagi (son of former Samoa international and Perpignan player Henry, and nephew of England centre Manu and former Samoa internationals Freddie, Alesana, Anitelea and Sanele Vavae).
Then, after the setback of losing captain Gregor Alldritt to a serious looking knee injury, the visitors threatened for the first time in the second half, and Paterson did well to tidy up Penaud’s kick through when under serious pressure from Bielle-Biarrey on his own line.
Having survived that scare, Scotland started to assert themselves again, battling through a series of phases on France’s 22 and picking up an offside penalty which Russell turned into three more points.
The game became bogged down as a kicking contest, much to the chagrin of the Murrayfield spectators, most of whom had paid good money to be entertained, and when a game of rugby briefly broke out again it was the visitors who led the charge, with Bielle-Biarrey chasing down his own kick ahead for the try, and Ramos’ conversion gave Les Bleus a single point lead with just under 10 minutes left to play.
The kicking quickly returned, and Scotland just couldn’t find a way back into the game, with another penalty kicked by Ramos after a maul offside stretching the visiting lead to four points.
If the previous 20 minutes were dull, the final three were full of drama. Rowe skipped past four would-be tacklers and went for the corner, but lost control and knocked on when he was brought down less than 10 yards from glory, only for France to cough-up the ball after the scrum, with Russell pouncing to initiate a frantic injury-time assault on the French line.
Sam Skinner thought he had gone over but referee Berry’s instinct was to say ‘no’, so the TMO was called in. And after five tortuous minutes of reviewing inconclusive video angles, the on-field decision that Yoram Moefana‘s boot had prevented the ball being grounded stood.
As the final whistle sounded, Murrayfield was eerily quiet as players and fans alike digested what had just transpired.
Scotland: K Rowe; K Rowe, H Jones (C Redpath 77), S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; P Schoeman (A Hepburn 72), G Turner (E Ashman 16-26, 68), Z Fagerson, G Gilchrist (S Skinner 74), S Cummings, M Fagerson (A Christie 41), R Darge, J Dempsey
France: T Ramos; D Penaud, G Fickou, J Danty (Y Moefana 62), L Bielle-Biarrey (D Aldegheri 37-48); M Jalibert, M Lucu (N Le Garrec, 49); C Baille (S Taofifenua 58), P Mauvaka (J Marchand 48), U Antonio (D Aldegheri 58), C Woki (P Tuilagi 49), P Gabrillagues (A Roumat 49), F Cros, C Ollivon, G Alldritt (P Boudehent, 49).
Referee: Nic Berry
Scotland: Try: White; Con: Russell; Pen: Russell 3.
France: Tries: Fickou, Bielle-Biarrey; Con: Ramos 2; Pen: Ramos 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-3; 10-3; 13-3; 13-8; 13-10 (h-t) 16-10; 16-15; 16-17; 16-20.
Yellow card –
France: Atonio (37mins)
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