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TikTok Women’s Six Nations – France v Scotland talking points

Helen Nelson - pic © Peter Watt
Helen Nelson - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports

For their second away game, Scotland once again took on a team far ahead in terms of development and resources and found themselves on the wrong end of a big defeat. As with their game against England, it makes more sense to judge Scotland on whether they met the standards we can reasonably hope for, rather than expect them to already be reaching the standards of France. And in that, with one big exception they were just above those standards in the first half, but unfortunately fell away significantly against a classy French outfit in the second, and without the positive late rally we saw in Newcastle.

Taking it to France in the first half

Despite the 17-0 half time score, Scotland had managed to match France pretty well in the first half.  Aggression levels and all-round hustle was as good and effective as we’ve seen so far. Scotland were competing physically with one of the strongest team out there, the scrum was holding up well, and they kept themselves in the game by denying France the ball – the latter was proving the best form of defence for Scotland. The kicking game was also going pretty well, and Lisa Thomson, Helen Nelson and Chloe Rollie were winning several kicking battles and forcing France to often kick at times and in ways they didn’t want to.  Two of the stand outs for me in that period were Caity Mattinson, who seemed to be everywhere in attack and defence and Leah Bartlett who was carrying across the gainline well and holding her own in the scrum.  Evie Gallagher, Lana Skeldon and Jade Konkel-Roberts were excellent in defence. In last year’s game, Scotland managed to keep France scoreless in the second half, and although this seemed unlikely again, it did feel at half time that perhaps Scotland could come away with a respectable end scoreline.

Familiar finishing woes

However, there was one major frustration with that first half performance. Despite a lot of possession and territory, no points were scored.  France have the best defence in the world and we need to allow that this is a new attack and with the team not long turned professional, it might take a little while to bed in. But things do need to get better. For Scotland to be competitive in this game, the 8th minute driving maul needed to result in a try. I couldn’t tell from the replays how they hadn’t managed to score, and it was a surprise they’d been stopped legally when this has been such a potent weapon the last few years. It was their best chance gone and the closest they got. We hear from the team and coaches again and again that the key is to be more clinical and to trust their attack. Maybe it was just the sheer quality of the French defence and a subsequent loss of patience, but it didn’t really feel like we saw enough accuracy or patience on Sunday. Too much possession seemed to result in Scotland going backwards and then either getting turned over or kicking the ball away. It was a bit too much déjà vu. They showed enough about how their attack can work, in all three games, and if ever there is a time for it to all come together, then the next two games are it.  

Promising returns

Two big names, Thomson and Konkel-Roberts, made their first appearances of the campaign.  Thomson in particular had a stand out impact on her 50th cap match. Her kicking and direct running made a huge difference and was a big part of where Scotland looked good in that first half. Konkel-Roberts put in a solid defensive shift, but surprisingly had a relatively quiet game in attack by her standards but actually this may also be a positive thing. Scotland’s attack in previous seasons could become over-reliant on her dominant carrying, which was effective but could also be relatively predictable for the defence. The fact that Scotland have more variety and options in attack means that Jade’s carrying can be used to more targeted effect. A third big name is likely to return too for the Italy game – Rhona Lloyd – and if she can fit back in as seamlessly as Thomson did, that will be a further edge to the attack, especially if Fran McGhie is unable to return from the injury that snuffed out her promising start to the game.

Breakdown and defensive woes

In the despondency after watching the game live, it felt like every French try had come off a turnover or loose kick that had instantly turned into a counter attack that blitzed past the Scotland defence and over the try line.  Watching the game back, that wasn’t quite the case, although it did account for most of the ways Scotland’s possession petered out, especially in the second half. France were too strong for Scotland at more rucks than was acceptable and even where Scotland weren’t turned over, their ruck speed wasn’t great and attacking shapes were therefore easily contained. In fact, much of France’s attacking excellence came from the brilliance of their players – Bourdon, Vernier and Llorens in particular, but also at times the likes of Tremouliere, Marine Menager and Boulard. But Scotland’s tackled percentage – down at 77% and with 41 missed is again a bit concerning. Five tries, including most of the third quarter deluge, came fairly quickly after Scotland kicks (clearing kicks, a goal line drop out and a restart) where the defence just didn’t quite seem to set shape quick enough. The 7th was the softest and most frustrating of the lot, where a misaligned defence straight from kick off, combined with France’s ability to set their attack up at pace just blew Scotland away.

Do we have a blueprint for the remaining games?

In a ‘normal’ Six Nations (whichever variety), at this point a team in Scotland’s position in the table may just be playing for pride, but this year’s Women’s Six Nations is not a normal one. Win at least one (and hopefully both) and Scotland can avoid finishing in 6th place which would see them in Tier 3 of the upcoming WXV tournament. This is designed to give countries more international tests, but in Tier 3 it will predominantly be amateur teams who play little test rugby. It would take a very specific set of results and scores for Scotland to finish 3rd and make Tier 1, but 4th or 5th should be in sight, and with it games against other teams who went to the lastWorld Cup and who will provide a good test in the build up to the next tournament.

Scotland will be taking on an unpredictable Italy and an inexperienced Ireland but hopefully we’ll see the best aspects of this team from the last couple of years, and see it come together in a clear blueprint for how they can play. From last year, it would be good to see that more clinical defence, the quicker ruck speed and the strong driving maul. If we can ally this with our hugely improved kicking game from this year (which can get us out of trouble much better and give us strong field position) and the quick and exciting attacking game that we’ve seen glimpses of, it would hopefully provide two performances to be very proud of. Italy are a much higher ranked team, and will start the game favourites, but if this team plays their best, they have a chance, and if they play consistently and smart, they should be able to outgun an Irish team that is sadly at it’s lowest point. There is so much for Scotland to play for, but also two brilliant opportunities to put the flashes of promise we’ve seen into two consistent, entertaining and effective 80-minute performances.

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