Scotland hadn’t beaten France in Paris in 16 years. That was the fact facing a young Scotland team, 5 of whom had never even played in the Six Nations. Amid the passion of a post-Charlie Hebdo Paris, this game was difficult to call for anyone who had an idea about this Scotland team. Ie not the French press.
An early Richie Gray lineout steal seemed like a good thing but when Blair Cowan pounced on the ball, several pumped up Frenchmen pounced on him and gave Lopez an early penalty kick to settle the hosts into the game.
Both sides tested out their kicking boots early on with Russell and Lopez probing in behind the defences well and the Scottish line holding up nicely against big French carriers. The lineout too was effective, with Gray making a guddle of French ball, and keeping his own safe.
As usual the scrum was less secure, with referee Nigel Owens impatient with the front rows from the earliest exchanges. After two against, Scotland got the nod from Owens within kicking range, and Greig Laidlaw duly levelled things up.
France struck back straight away with another penalty as the home team – playing in red – put together more good possession and while Scotland tackled all they were asked, the French still made ground pretty easily.
Tommy Seymour picked up a knock and after only quarter of an hour he was off and with it one of Scotland’s main threats. It coincided with a further period of scrambling defence by Scotland as Les Rouges grew in confidence, looking for gaps out wide. The first 20 served as a breathless and physical introduction to true international test rugby for Cowan, Russell and Bennett.
There was excitement for Scotland fans as Hogg – in at first receiver – stepped through the French defence and the men in dark blue offered a real threat to the French line. In the face of staunch defence it ended with a missed drop goal by Russell (perhaps an option too soon) but the Scots were looking a bit more settled, and with Seymour out, Hogg was suddenly a noticeable presence in the game.
Hogg had another foot race moments later as Dunbar stripped possession and finding space, hoofed it to the corner for the faster man to chase. France’s back three are no slouches and were up to it, Bennett being penalised for handling in the ruck as he desperately tried to regain the ball metres from the French try line.
Scotland were frustratingly close to clicking, with plenty of solid defence, good work at the breakdown but just the odd little mistake; a great steal from Cowan being followed by a fumble from Laidlaw.
Lopez kicked another penalty to make it 9-3 just minutes before half time, and that looked like that until Hogg, Visser and Bennett combined to put Dunbar within inches of the line. Scotland, instead of blowing it, were patient and intelligent and the ball went through the phases until Russell fizzed a pass out to Euan Murray who showed soft hands to pop it on for Dougie Fife to score in the corner. Laidlaw’s conversion came off the post but Scotland were right back in it.
Half Time France 9-8 Scotland
The opening salvos of the second half were much like the first, with probing kicks and a fierce contest at the breakdown. Ford had a first stutter at the lineout, while Hogg overcooked a clearance kick to give France an attacking platform. Dougie Fife – who till that point had been an able substitute for Seymour – made an error carrying the ball to touch, and angrily threw the ball away which Owens quite rightly penalised. Lopez took the very soft opportunity to stretch the French lead back out to more than a point.
Were Scotland starting to wilt?
France brought their hefty bench to bear with half an hour to play as Strokosch replaced Harley, who then came back on as Cowan went off for a concussion test.
France nearly scored their own try following a strong forward drive, but they spilled it and Finn Russell riskily chose to break out from his own in-goal area and fumbled right in front of the posts, having made all of about 2 metres. Luckily Owens was playing advantage for a knock on and he gave Russell a get out of jail card, taking it back for the scrum.
Unfortunately that scrum was collapsed and Lopez kicked another penalty to make it 12-8.
It was still close going into the final 20 minutes, and the effort from the Scottish pack was mammoth, but Scotland vitally needed possession to try and get into the French 22 and get some points.
Unfortunately Johnnie Beattie was yellow carded for bringing down a rolling maul near the line, and Scotland spent the period they were finding it hardest down a man, and defending frantically.
At times some of it was scarcely credible, Cowan, Strokosch and Jonny Gray putting themselves in the way of massive French runners time and time again. When the French attacked out wide, it was Russell and Dunbar who had to hunt pace men like Teddy Thomas down.
With big Jim on and the Scots looking to slow the clock a little with Beattie off, they put together some great mauls of their own but they were looking tired heading into the last ten minutes restored to a full compliment.
It looked like it was all over moments later when Visser sprinted out of the line for a speculative interception, Huget snatched it back and was on for the try until he fumbled under pressure from the excellent Mark Bennett.
Scotland had one last attacking lineout but couldn’t hold on to it in the face of huge defensive pressure from France, and a French boot hoofed it clear and Scotland were pinged for holding on. With two minutes to play, Lopez kicked another penalty to take the margin to 7 and the game was out of reach for Scotland.
France were the winners, and worth that win following a typically oppressive performance at the breakdown that meant Scotland could put very little together in the second half but they will – once again – see this as one that got away and hope to put that right against a wounded Wales
SRBlog Man of the Match: Stuart Hogg was immense for Scotland all game. With Tommy Seymour off, he had the roving attack brief and made the best of several half gaps in the French defence, sparking all that was good about Scotland in the first half.