STUART BATHGATE @Murrayfield
YOU don’t give teams of France’s quality a 10-point lead if you’re going to have a chance of winning the game. Well, not very often anyway.
The reason why Scotland won this one was not only because the French were never able to emulate that explosive start, but also because the Scots themselves arm-wrestled their way back into contention, steadily exerting more and more control on proceedings against opponents who were increasingly unable to think on their feet the longer the game went on. For all that France were the better team in the first half and remained dangerous for almost all of the second, it was therefore a deserved win for Gregor Townsend’s team, and indeed for the coach himself, who was bold enough to take off Finn Russell in the closing stages and move Greig Laidlaw to stand-off when Ali Price came off the bench.
If one man deserves most credit for the win, however, it has to be Laidlaw himself. The former captain converted both Scotland’s tries, scored by Sean Maitland and Huw Jones, and added six penalties for a personal tally of 22 points and a 100 per cent record with the boot.
The contribution of those three and the rest of the pack helped restrict the amount of front-foot ball at France’s disposal, while the backs also defended with increasing tenacity as the game went on. When it comes to playing England, however, Scotland know they are unlikely to be offered a second chance to get back into the match. In other words, while, apart from the baleful beginning, this was an improved performance on the loss to Wales, further improvement will be needed if we are to see the Calcutta Cup won on Saturday week.
Scotland achieved the improbable in those early stages, by beginning the game even more poorly than they had done in Cardiff. With barely three minutes played there seemed to be no immediate danger when a loose pass from Geoffrey Doumayrou missed his fellow-centre Remi Lamerat and bounced out to the right wing. But Teddy Thomas swiftly turned an innocuous position into an incisive attack, slipping all too easily past a feeble attempt at a tackle from Russell, evading Peter Horne, then gliding inside Stuart Hogg to touch down behind the posts. Maxime Machenaud converted, then added another three points in the 10th minute after John Barclay had been penalised, and Scotland had still not had anything amounting to a half-decent attack.
That changed a couple of minutes later, however, when Hogg kicked through to deep inside the French 22, forcing Thomas to come across to cover and escort the ball into touch. Scotland’s lineout drive was halted, but Gray and Gilchrist helped spread the ball left, where Russell was well positioned to give the scoring pass to Maitland. Laidlaw converted, and we had a match on our hands again.
The home side saw a lot of the ball in the ensuing quarter of an hour, and kicked a lot of it away – including one languid effort from Russell that went out on the full. France’s kicks, by contrast, were far more dangerous, as Thomas proved with his second try after 26 minutes.
The winger’s chip over the top left Maitland stranded, and although Laidlaw was back to cover, the bounce evaded the scrum-half. That allowed Thomas just to keep on running, pick it up and again touch down to leave Machenaud a simple task with the conversion.
Down by 10 again, Scotland needed to respond quickly, and they did so with a superb score by Jones. A Hogg counter-attack began the move, and Berghan drove on. As Laidlaw gathered at the base of the ruck, Jones came in on excellent line, and the French defence could do nothing to stop him as he cut back at speed against the grain. Laidlaw converted to take Scotland back to within three points, but another Machenaud penalty for a lineout offence stretched France’s advantage back to six with the last kick of the half.
That was the last contribution of the game from the scrum-half too, as Baptiste Serin took his place for the start of the second half. Scotland began it far more purposefully, and a barging run culminated in their being awarded a penalty, which Laidlaw stroked over from 25 metres. Within two minutes, Serin replied with another three-pointer, this time given for crossing after Ryan Wilson got in the way of the defence as Hogg embarked on a wide run.
France soon offended again, allowing Laidlaw to close the gap back to three, but after that they began to dominate territorially, and Serin was on target with another penalty after 56 minutes. Even so, after putting in such a flawed performance, Scotland were still just six points down with the final quarter to come – and when Laidlaw reduced the deficit to three, the feeling grew that the match could still be won.
It became all the stronger after 64 minutes when Laidlaw scored with a scrum penalty, drawing Scotland level for the first time since the start of the match. Russell, who had had an indifferent game, was then taken off in a bold move, designed to give the home team more control at a time when French resolve was faltering.
It soon began to pay off as France were pressed back deep inside their own half. With 11 minutes left, their defence strayed offside, and Laidlaw yet again made no mistake: 29-26.
France still had a lot of fight in them, but were increasingly error-prone, and continued to give away penalties. Four minutes from time, they killed the ball at the ruck and Laidlaw kept up his 100 per cent record: 32-26.
Inside the final two minutes, a long penalty to touch set up an excellent lineout platform for France to attack from, but their maul was held up, giving Scotland the put-in at the scrum. The ball emerged, and they were still trying to run their way out of their 22 when France again offended, allowing Scotland to send the ball out to end the game and claim a morale-boosting win.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Subs: S Lawson, J Bhatti, J Welsh, B Toolis, D Denton, A Price, C Harris, B Kinghorn.
France: G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, G Doumayrou, V Vakatawa; L Beauxis, M Machenaud; J Poirot, G Guirado, R Slimani, A Itturia, S Vahaamahina, W Lauret, Y Camara, M Tauleigne. Substitutes: A Pelissie, E Ben Arous, C Gomes Sa, P Gabrillagues, L Picamoles, B Serin, A Belleau, B Fall.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Maitland, Jones. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pens: Laidlaw 6.
France: Tries: Thomas 2. Cons: Machenaud 2. Pens : Machenaud 2, Serin 2.
Scoring sequence: 0-5, 0-7, 0-10, 5-10, 7-10, 7-15, 7-17, 12-17, 14-17, 14-20 half-time, 17-20, 17-23, 20-23, 20-26, 23-26, 26-26, 29-26, 32-26.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).