Iain Hay at BT Murrayfield
The returning Greig Laidlaw, aka “Rugby Jesus” in some circles, booted over 22 points as Scotland came from behind to snatch a dramatic, and hard-fought victory over their visiting French counterparts.
An early setback for Scotland came after less than three minutes, Teddy Thomas repeating his trick of last week by scoring an impressive solo try. The winger picked the ball up on the right wing just inside Scotland’s half before slaloming his way outside Finn Russell and Pete Horne, inside Stuart Hogg and under the posts, however Russell in particular will feel he could have done better with the first up tackle.
As Scotland sought to find their way back into the match, a knock-on between the 10 and 22m lines gifted the put-in to France, and the first test of the scrum. After a reset, referee John Lacey awarded the penalty to France who cleared into Scotland’s half.
Lacey then pinged Jonny Gray for not releasing after the tackle as Scotland finally gained some possession, and scrum-half Maxime Machenaud increased the lead to 10-0 for Les Bleus.
Scottish socks needed to be pulled up, and an eerily hushed home crowd needed enlivening, which Scotland sought to do with their next spell of possession. The Glasgow Warriors axis of Horne, Russell and Hogg combined in midfield, culminating in Hogg sending a grubber towards the try-line with Tommy Seymour chasing after it. With few options, try-scorer Thomas booted it into touch, but the reprieve for France was short-lived. Gilchrist claimed the line-out, and although the attempt at the driving maul was pulled down, Scotland recycled and worked their way left, Russell supplying the final pass for Maitland to finish the overlap in the corner. Laidlaw added the extra 2 points from an improbable angle.
From the restart, Hogg’s kick was charged down by blindside flanker Lauret, but thankfully Russell was in behind to get to the ball first in the goal area. After a disappointing showing in Cardiff last time out, particularly with the boot, Russell, who was outstanding for his club last year in moving the monstrous pack of French club Racing 92 around until they were blowing out of their derrieres, was over-eager and under-performing in trying to achieve the same result at international level. One kick was half-blocked, one went out on the full, most just gifted possession back.
In contrast to the mercurial Finn, France had opted for the more conservative Beauxis at stand-off, however the flair of old French teams was coursing through their forwards, who were not afraid to charge at the gain line and attempt the off-load. Their adventure eventually paid off and it was Teddy Thomas who again crossed the whitewash as he found space on the right-wing, kicked over the top of Hogg and after a fortuitous bounce deceived the covering Greig Laidlaw, had the simplest of finishes. Machenaud maintained his 100% kicking accuracy, but 2 scrum halves can play at that game.
Within a couple of minutes Scotland won themselves a penalty, Berghan getting his hands on French ball after they themselves had forced a turnover, only Russell knocked it over the touch-line beyond the try-line. Advantage lost,
Scotland reduced the deficit after 32mins, a glorious move down the right involving a sumptuous off-load from Huw Jones was knocked-on by Laidlaw, but when France booted their advantage away, the Scots struck. Russell, Hogg and Horne were all involved again, the attack culminating in Huw Jones cutting a fine line, taking Laidlaw’s short ball from the ruck at pace to keep up his remarkable scoring record on the Test stage, 8 tries in 13 games now.
With under five minutes remaining of a pulsating first-half, another attacking position went to waste. Russell did this time find touch, despite Teddy Thomas’ hilarious attempt to keep it in, but McInally’s arrow was picked off by Arthur Iturria. Although Scotland won the ball back, and Maitland charged into the 22 after coming in off his wing, France again won the penalty at the breakdown where they had had the upper hand in this first half.
France claimed the last points of the half from the resultant plays, winning another two penalties in quick succession, the latter of which was within Machenaud’s range to take the half-time deficit for Scotland beyond a score.
Half-time: Scotland 14-20 France
Russell kicked off the second half for Scotland, the visitors having replaced scrum-half Machenaud with Baptiste Serin.
Scotland dominated possession for the opening minutes, Grant Gilchrist, who had arguably been Scotland’s best performer in the first half with a bone-crunching performance, made a good charge which resulted in a penalty when Serin came in at the side of the ruck. Laidlaw knocked over the penalty, reducing the deficit to 3.
The reduction was almost instantly negated when Wilson obstructed the tackler with Hogg on the loop, Serin taking over responsibilities from the tee with Machenaud replaced. France had only won possession back after Russell had again failed to make touch with a penalty. The mercury had dropped on the thermometers as the afternoon wore on, and it had unfortunately dropped with Finn again today.
Penalty begat penalty, France pinged this time when despite claiming the restart cleanly, lock Itturia cleared McInally out before he’d got to the ruck, allowing Laidlaw to get us back to where we had been just 2mins before with a 3-point lead to France.
Hogg weaved and danced, but Jones knocked on Laidlaw’s ankle-biter of a pass, Horne then tried to smuggle away, but France would again manage to force a turnover penalty just as Scotland looked to be getting somewhere, Iturria making some amends for his previous faux pas.
France were then threatening the try-line with their first foray into Scotland territory of the half. An ambitious chip and chase was dealt with, but France came again, and Scotland were perhaps fortunate to only lose 3 points. With penalty advantage on their side they got up to within 10m, only for Laidlaw to strip the ball from Vakatawa.
Serin’s boot added the 3, and with that we saw the first mass reinforcements from the bench. Gordon Reid replaced by Jamie Bhatti and the impressive Gilchrist with clubmate Ben Toolis. France also took this opportunity to switch their props and introduce the je ne sais quoi of Louis Picamoles.
France’s earlier assuredness at the breakdown was starting to wane, either due to fatigue or referee John Lacey taking a dimmer view of their antics, and Laidlaw reduced the deficit again on the hour. Shortly afterwards, Scotland again won the penalty, this time at the scrum with Simon Berghan, playing for the first time in 6 weeks, forcing the error. With Ali Price stripped and ready to come on the touch-line, Laidlaw levelled the scores with what we had assumed would be his last involvement, but surprisingly it was Finn Russell who made way for Price, and at the same time current captain Barclay was switched with the battering ram of David Denton, making his first international appearance since Japan in 2016.
Murrayfield now in full pelt, Beauxis spilled an easy kick, further raising the home crowd’s expectations. Scotland huffed and puffed, putting France under extreme pressure, but within a few metres of the line and the lead, the French defence held up the maul to win them the scrum, and a well needed breather.
But Scotland kept on coming, their superior fitness starting to show, and for the first time took the lead with under 10mins left on the clock, “Bullseye” Laidlaw again hit the mark, 29-26 to Scotland.
With France now desperate, they emptied their bench but shot themselves in the foot when Camara interfered with Price at the ruck. Hogg found touch deep in the French 22. Line-out secured, Scotland kept the ball as the clock ran down, their cause further aided by another French aberration in easily kickable range.
Nerves now pretty frayed, France put a penalty into Scotland’s 22m with barely 2mins to play after Toolis was penalised for not rolling away, even though he looked pinned in. With the maul set up and France looking to breenge Scottish defences, a combination of McInally and Ryan Wilson, who showed his defensive prowess and work-rate throughout, caused them to falter.
Nerves now reduced to a single, graphene-thin layer, the scrum didn’t go smoothly, but Wilson got his hands on it, and France again conceded a penalty to the delight of the home crowd. Time up, ball out, and Scotland’s 6N campaign could boast a “1” in the “Win” column.
Next up? England. Toonie has some big decisions to make, but for now, let’s take heart in the fact that when Scotland were down, they fought back. Despite a worrying first and last scrum, the much fretted over set-piece was pretty even and the line-out functioned a lot better than last week. If Richie Gray’s available that will be a massive boost in that area, but both Gilchrist and Jonny impressed today. And as for Finn? I say keep him in, after two disappointments there’s a big game in to come. Decisions, decisions…
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: In sheer defiance of the sponsors, I’m going to pass on Laidlaw despite his points contribution. Horne, Hogg and Jones impressed in the backs with their running, (Huw Jones’ angles are a delight). Berghan, for a tight-head who hasn’t played in 6 weeks to put in that level of performance for a full 80 was a tremendous effort, and Denton impressed in his short time on the pitch, but I’m going to have to opt for Grant Gilchrist. In the hour he spent on the pitch he smashed everything in sight, carried well, ran the line-outs and also showed some deft touches. Well done that man.