THE long wait for a victory in Paris goes on. For all the optimism engendered by France’s failings in their first two outings, it was Scotland who proved the more error-prone of the two sides, and the final try count of four to one could well have been worse. Much worse.
Although they still looked a flawed side at times, the home team showed some touches of real inspiration, and the fact that they were denied four other tries by the Television Match Official was an indication of how on top they were – especially up front, where their pack pummelled their opponents voraciously. Scotland, by contrast, got their only try far too late in the game, just after France’s third had put the outcome beyond doubt. They looked short of ideas for most of the match – unsurprisingly given the absence of key attackers such as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell – and when they did get on top for a time deep into the second half they were unable to make their superior fitness tell.
There are times after a defeat when players would like nothing more than to get back out there and play again as soon as possible, but after this display it is surely just as well that another fallow week in the Six Nations Championship awaits before preparations start for the visit of Wales to Murrayfield. The injury list should have shortened by then, while those who have played throughout will have had a much-needed chance to recharge their batteries.
France thought they had opened the scoring after seven minutes when Damian Penaud went over in the right corner, but the try was referred to the TMO and correctly chalked off for a knock-on just prior to the last pass. It was an encouraging moment for the French, nonetheless, and an ominous moment for Scotland, as the passage of play had begun with Nick Grigg being stripped of possession, then continued when Blair Kinghorn failed to hold on to a dink into the 22 by Thomas Ramos.
Their confidence high, France scored the first try after 13 minutes with an excellent counter-attack. Ramos fielded a clearance by Pete Horne and beat four men before feeding Penaud. The move went back inside, and although Antoine Dupont was stopped by Grigg, fast recycling allowed Romain Ntamack to run in his first international try. Ramos converted, then took his team into double figures with a penalty a few minutes later after Scotland had failed to deal with a kick into their 22.
We were midway through the half before the visitors were able to mount a sustained attack ball in hand, but they kept their patience well when they got into good position, and were rewarded by a penalty only to see Greig Laidlaw send the ball crashing back off the upright. Offered a simpler chance after 25 minutes, however, the captain was on target, giving his team a glimmer of hope after a difficult opening spell.
Referee Nic Berry had warned the French then that their next offence would produce a yellow card, and he was true to his word, sending Yoann Huget to the bin after the winger obstructed Scots ball.
Scotland failed to take advantage of the extra man at the first attempt when Josh Strauss was penalised, then they got another let-off when a second French score was ruled out – again correctly – for a knock-on. They got another, too, from the resultant scrum, when Allan Dell was ruled to have offended, but Ramos sent his penalty wide.
With Huget back on the pitch, France dominated the dying minutes of the half but failed to add to their tally. A seven-point lead might easily have been double that or more, but somehow Scotland were still well in the game. They knew their fitness would hold up, but the question was whether they would still be within touching distance by the time the French began to tire.
A hint of an answer came within 65 seconds of the restart, as France belatedly got their second try. An improbable chip and collect by Mathieu Bastareaud sowed confusion in the ranks of the defence, leaving enough room for Huget to cross on the left, and although the conversion attempt was missed, a 12-point lead looked close to unassailable given the paucity of chances created by Scotland.
Adam Hastings came on, initially while Horne had an HIA and then for Sam Johnson, with Horne moving to 12. Scotland began to find some momentum again after that trying start to the half, and Sean Maitland came within five metres or so of scoring before being dragged down to the deck.
Upping the tempo made complete sense, but it also had the effect of increasing an error count that was already too high, and with that comfortable 12-point cushion to sit back on, France were able to bide their time while waiting for a break to come their way. It almost arrived after an hour when Huget made considerable ground, but the winger’s decision not to pass proved costly.
With 15 minutes to go, Gregor Townsend threw on his six remaining replacements, Ben Toolis having come on for Jonny Gray a little earlier. It may have been no more than a throw of the dice, but it was a wholly understandable move. Ali Price certainly thought the time for caution was long gone, taking a tap penalty that set Hastings off on a promising attack which was ended with a smother tackle by Huget on Grigg.
Even going into the last 10 minutes there was a clear sense that one Scottish score would throw the game wide open, but it simply refused to come. Instead, France finally killed off the contest five minutes from time, when they controlled a drive from a five-metre scrum before Gregory Alldritt touched down. It was no more than they deserved, having been awarded the scrum immediately after a replay had denied them a third time, with a Scottish hand having been judged to have touched down behind the line just before Gael Fickou did so.
Baptiste Serin missed the conversion, then from the restart Scotland scored at last, Horne providing the scoring pass for Price. The two additional points meant one more score would give Scotland the consolation of a losing bonus, but one lengthy last attack could not conjure it up.
Instead, in the eighth minute of time added on, France got the try bonus that their dominance had deserved. They opted to scrum a penalty, got a good drive on, and with the referee playing advantage Alldritt, who had been denied a score by the TMO moments earlier, touched down. This time Serin converted, at last bringing to an end a bitterly disappointing day for Scotland.
France: T Ramos, D Penaud, M Bastareaud, G Fickou, Y Huget, R Ntamack, A Dupont; J Poirot, G Guirado (captain), D Bamba, S Vahaamahina, F Lambey, W Lauret, A Iturria, L Picamoles. Subs: C Chat, E Falgoux, D Aldegheri, P Willemse, G Alldritt, B Serin, A Belleau, M Medard.
Scotland: B Kinghorn; T Seymour, N Grigg, S Johnson, S Maitland; P Horne, G Laidlaw; A Dell, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, J Strauss. Subs: F Brown, A Allan, Z Fagerson, B Toolis, G Graham, A Price, A Hastings, D Graham.
Scorers: France: Tries: Ntamack, Huget, Alldritt 2. Cons: Ramos 2. Pen: Ramos.
Scotland: Try: Price. Con: Hastings. Pen: Laidlaw.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 7-0, 10-0, 10-3 half-time, 15-3, 20-3, 20-8, 20-10, 25-10, 27-10.
Yellow card: France: Huget 28.
Referee: N Berry (Australia).