Scotland came to Paris in search of a first win since 1999 while France were looking to get their campaign off the mark after defeat to England.
3 or 4 turnovers inside the opening 3 minutes set the pace for another breathlessly-paced first half of rugby. Maitland almost got loose up his wing but was hauled down as he cut back inside. France signalled their intent with the offloads early on while the Scots were slightly more conservative in approach, sitting off the French defence slightly.
The first scrum came and went without incident but France had the first points moments later when Strauss handled on the deck.
Scotland pressurised France again and managed to thwart their exit strategy with a “choke” tackle that earned them a good scrum position but the largest French pack assembled proved irresistible and Strauss knocked on at the base to reverse possession.
Patient play for Scotland resulted in their first try, Huw Jones ensnaring two French tacklers to pop the ball away and put Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson into space. Hogg backed his pace to dive over but Laidlaw’s conversion hit the crossbar.
France, clearly up for the fight, came straight back with another Lopez penalty at the very next set of phases to retake the lead after a frenetic, chaotic opening 20 minutes.
A superb turnover in the tackle from Fraser Brown kept France from scoring again straight away but at that point Greig Laidlaw went off injured with what looked like an ankle knock. Ali Price got straight into the action by shoving Lopez whilst trying to collect the ball for a quick penalty he was never going to take. Lopez missed the kick to spare his blushes.
France kept up the pressure through 18 punishing phases where their offloading game was to the fore, until Gael Fickou dived under Hogg’s tackle in the corner. When France were flying, they looked really dangerous but the defence was led by Brown and Alex Dunbar. Huw Jones put in a huge amount of tackling work too, even if Scotland didn’t have much ball for him to play with.
They attacked the very next restart and stormed to within a metre of the line. Russell kicked the penalty after the Scots couldn’t profit, then slotted another moments later when he could easily have been on the receiving end after an iffy challenge in the air.
France had another spell attacking but the Scots defence held.
Half-time: France 13-11 Scotland
The second half didn’t get off to the best start for Scotland as John Hardie went off for a head injury assessment, only just on for John Barclay who had already failed one. The impact of the bench Cotter would have hoped for late on was already looking lowered.
Swinson, on for Hardie, didn’t show it though with a nice support line for Tommy Seymour, who had regathered his chip kick deep in the French half. Unfortunately, Russell made a mess of the simple conversion after the ball flopped off the tee. Would it prove crucial?*
Lopez equalised the scores to 16-16 with another penalty as France attacked, then Russell – who was hit or miss as usual but had brilliantly put Seymour into space to create that try – fluffed the restart, and the French were back attacking from the set scrum, their most potent weapon and on half way easily within range of Scott Spedding.
Spedding booted it wide of the mark, keeping the scores level with half an hour left but the next long range penalty awarded by referee Jaco Peyper went the way of Scotland. Hogg was inside his own half but he went about as wide, although he had enough distance to keep France wary as they emptied their much fuller bench.
As Strauss went down with a knock on the hour mark (and Dunbar went off for yet another HIA, although he passed and returned), it looked like the physicality had put paid to the idea of running the French ragged in the last twenty minutes and Scotland looked a tired bunch. Strauss in particular was putting in a superhuman effort from the back of the scrum, carrying tirelessly when he looked all but broken every time he got up.
France went for the kill with a penalty on 65 minutes kicked to the corner. Scottish defence was courageous in the face of imperious rolling mauls. Fraser Brown, who had been superb all game, finally gave way for Ford as the French took a scrum with their advantage. A penalty try, a card, anything here would have killed the Scottish resistance. The scrum miraculously held firm but the decision went to the TMO after Lamerat looked to have slapped the ball down over the line.
As expected, Scotland’s scrum to clear from the knock on came under huge pressure but Peyper saw it Scotland’s way when France didn’t drive straight and Russell was able to clear it to touch with a lineout in their favour with 10 to play.
It was nervy stuff, and France’s line speed was still fierce so there was little surprise when Scotland were pinged for holding on. Lopez kicked it and France crept back into the lead, before slotting another with 4 minutes left.
With the French scrum dominant, Scotland spent most of the last period of the game defending a seemingly tireless onslaught and they conceded penalty after penalty. For a game where the Scots fitness had been seen as the key beforehand, they simply were running out of steam due to the back row injuries.
Scotland attacked again, but where they had been so precise last week there were knock-ons and balls stripped out of contact. It was, all things considered, a vastly courageous effort from Scotland and they were – on paper at least – in it to the end, but to come away with the losing bonus point will have been little consolation.
The French line speed meant we didn’t see the best of Scotland going forward in a hugely attritional match. The worry now will be who is left in the pack to face Wales.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Alex Dunbar absolutely played his part in a mammoth defensive effort, acting as another back row when Scotland were losing the real ones to injury. Fraser Brown was also excellent. Huw Jones played his part in defence, but had a few key spills in attack that blotted his copybook. For me though you have to look to Josh Strauss when never stopped even when he and his team looked physically broken, and was the standout forward when it came to standing up to the French pack.
* thankfully no.