France arrived at BT Murrayfield under the cloud of coronavirus, but the Grand Slam chasing Gallic horde were repelled by a strong Scottish defensive effort, which was made easier by a moment of madness from French tighthead Mohamed Haouas.
Nick Haining was penalised within the opening two minutes for not rolling away, allowing Romain Ntamack, so good against Wales last time out, the opportunity to put his side ahead from just inside Scotland’s half. Fortunately for Haining and Scotland, it drifted just right of the posts.
France were then reduced to 14-men for a period when Francois Cros and Paul Willemse tackled Grant Gilchrist and dumped him on his head. Willemse seemed to be the worst of the aggressors, but after a discussion between referee Paul Williams and TMO Bruce MacNiece, it was Cros that was sent to the bin for 10 minutes.
The familiar failing line-out stopped Scotland’s first chance to attack, but Ntamack’s spill of Hastings Garryowen gave Scotland a scrum in centre field just outside the 22. Not only that, but the influential Ntamack had to be replaced by Matthieu Jalibert after being injured when trying to retrieve the situation.
Scotland won the scrum penalty, and Adam Hastings eventually knocked over the penalty after readjusting his ball placement on the tee.
Jalibert threatened for France when he made a sneaky blindside break and chipped over Blair Kinghorn, but the Edinburgh man had enough speed to win the race and Ali Price cleared Scotland’s lines.
Another Hastings penalty extended the lead to 6-0, and halfway through the first half, France were looking a bit rattled. They were making handling errors, nipping in Paul Williams’ ear and being bettered in the scrum.
Damian Penaud on France’s right-wing may be a lethal finisher, but his defence can be sometimes lacking, sometimes non-existent.
Hastings was happy to send a few kicks his way, and one of them saw Penaud put under extreme pressure from Kinghorn. Penaud appeared to have the last touch, only for the officials to rule it had come off Kinghorn before crossing the touchline.
A few minutes later, and Penaud had done what he does best; score tries.
Jalibert broke down the left, and although Maitland did tremendously well to halt Fickou’s charge to the line and Scotland were in scramble mode. Dupont, who at times had looked lost without Ntamack beside him, saw acres of space out on the right, and cross-kicked for Penaud.
Good pressure from the restart saw Scotland win the turnover and then a penalty deep in the French 22. Rather than take the three, Hogg went for the line.
Illegal entry to the maul gave Scotland another penalty advantage, and at the next stoppage an almighty scrap broke out on the French 5m line.
Nick Haining and Mohamed Haouas started it, Jamie Ritchie came tearing in and Haouas swung a big right hook at him. It connected on his cheek, so Paul Williams called skipper Ollivon and Haouas over before calmly explaining that he had no option but to send Haouas packing.
Hastings’ third penalty of the afternoon put Scotland back in front, and excellent breakdown work by Hamish Watson gave Scotland another chance with only one-minute remaining in the first half.
And how they took that chance. An excellent weaving run by Adam Hastings bamboozled the French defence, Sam Johnson cut a nice line to take the ball on, and rather than risk going himself, he unselfishly dished it out for Sean Maitland to dive into the right corner for Scotland’s first BT Murrayfield try of the Six Nations. A crucial score at a most crucial stage.
Half-time: Scotland 14 – 7 France
France battered the Scotland line in the early stages of the second half, only for the much improved defence we’ve seen in this campaign hold firm and stay disciplined.
Then, the lethal Scotland of two years ago poked it’s ahead above the waters again with a tremendous score to send Murrayfield wild.
Hogg spotted a forward to run at, Harris went deep, and although Price was stopped 5m short, Maitland was soon over for his second predatory score of the afternoon. Hastings superb touchline conversion made it 21-7.
The French really were shaken to the core. Gregory Alldritt had a lengthy whinge with dramatic hand gestures, and when they next had possession in the Scotland half, Jefferson Poirot cleared Jamie Ritchie from a ruck round the neck.
Anthony Bouttier has been a recent revelation for France, and his break into the Scotland 22 caused some panic, only for Jalibert’s grubber to be guzzled up by Hastings and thumped away, but it showed they were still a real threat with the lead at two converted tries.
With an hour on the clock France did reduce the deficit from the boot of Jalibert, but Scotland would have been relieved that they kept the like of Vakatawa from crossing the whitewash.
As some drizzle hit Edinburgh, a double rainbow arced perfectly over the roof of BT Murrayfield’s east-stand, and Stuart McInally claimed the pot of gold at the end of at least one of them
His own line-out was deflected back into his path, and when he picked it up, there was not a single French player covering the left wing. Having just come on, the hooker who can outrun Jonny May was gifted the score. Another excellent Hastings’ conversion extended the lead to 18 points with only around 15mins left to play.
Double try-scorer Sean Maitland made way for Kyle Steyn – winning his first cap – and the former 7s man nearly created another try when he leapt above Fickou to claim a Hastings up ‘n under and put Harris through, but he didn’t quite have the acceleration to go himself, or the ability to off-load for Horneito (who else?) who had popped up on his right shoulder.
With just under 5mins remaining, France did reduce the deficit with a wonderfully worked move, began by full-back Thomas Ramos and finished off by skipper Charles Ollivon, but la resistance proved futile, as they couldn’t reduce the arrears further which could have led to an all-important losing bonus point.
It was actually Scotland who rolled the dice one more time as they chased the try bonus point, alas Blair Kinghorn put too much juice on his kick ahead with both him and Hogg haring after it.
A much needed, morale boosting victory – the fourth in a row at Murrayfield over Les Bleus – all eyes now turn to the Principality stadium, and the possibility of a three-win Six Nations campaign which had all started rather bleakly.
Referee: Paul Williams (NZRU)
SRBlog MOTM: in a change to the official sponsor’s selection, but staying in the back-row, I’m awarding it to Hamish Watson. Two huge defensive turnovers either side of half-time swung the momentum firmly in Scotland’s favour. (And no, this is not solely to appease Cammy Black who thought I should have awarded him MOTM against Ireland rather than Jamie Ritchie.)