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2024 Women’s Six Nations: Scotland 5-15 France – The Talking Points

Emma Orr - pic © Peter Watt
Emma Orr - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports

Scotland

2024 Guinness Women's Six NationsSat 30th Mar 2024Hive Stadium, EdinburghKick-off: 2:15 pm (UK)5-15

France

Referee: Sara Cox (RFU)| TV: BBC

Scotland fought until the end but France got the better of them in a close match which was an encouraging sign for where this Scotland team may be. Here are some talking points from a valiant performance.

Defence impresses again

Scotland were unable to match their extraordinary 97% tackle completion rate from the week before, but their defence was once again excellent. In previous years, line breaks were kryptonite to this Scotland team, frequently conceding a try if the attackers got in behind the main line.

France did manage seven linebreaks through their fast offloading game. In response, however, Scotland’s scramble defence was brilliant and their ability to reset it close to the try line pressured France into mistakes and prevented them from capitalising on these opportunities.

The defensive pressure was so high, especially in the first half, the French looked almost rattled into mistakes, as if they were not expecting quite such a firm dark blue wall.

Skipper Rachel Malcolm - pic © Peter Watt
Skipper Rachel Malcolm – pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports

Back row heroes

The back row put in another stellar performance, with inspirational captain Rachel Malcolm the top Scottish carrier and tackler with 16 of each.

Alex Stewart continued her impressive start to international rugby: after two rounds she sits third across all teams for tackles made (15 in this game), first by some distance for attacking ruck arrivals and top for clear-outs. And I’m not sure a thesaurus would give me enough superlatives for how impressive Evie Gallagher continues to be. Another workhorse, she is fourth for carries across the tournament and top for defensive ruck arrivals. But most of all, she is top for breakdown steals. And these weren’t any breakdown steals, but a few metres from Scotland’s try line, snuffing out the French attack twice and rescuing her team, a major part of why those line breaks didn’t lead directly to tries. She is surely one of the most underrated players in rugby and at 23 years old, it feels like she is just getting started.

Risk and reward in attack

France have maybe the best defence in the world, so it’s not surprising that Scotland’s attack didn’t work as well as against Wales. Scotland squandered a couple of opportunities from early attacking lineouts, but they were also being brave and throwing towards the tail to give themselves a better chance of a well-set maul, an understandable risk to take. But there’s maybe still work to do on upping the tempo, and risking a little more creativity against the very best teams.

Scotland’s ruck speed is currently the slowest in the tournament along with Italy.

Bizarrely, there are seven Scots in the top 10 players with the most clearouts, which you would hope would lead to quicker ball. It did occasionally look like they were over-resourcing attacking rucks meaning fewer attackers up in the line. I’m not sure fewer bodies at rucks is the answer as they conceded turnovers a few times with holding-on penalties (although like last week, these only seemed to happen when Alex Stewart didn’t make it to a ruck).

Whatever the fix is, they will want quick ball against England as their attack will have to be at its best to keep in touch with the attacking juggernaut that is the Red Roses. A few risks in attack might be worth it, as these are not opponents you can grind down.

So near but so far for Scotland

The week before, Ireland had caused France some difficulty by exerting territorial pressure and Scotland did similar in the first half, with some impressive kicking trapping the French in their own half and the pressure eventually paying with the opening try.

But for this to build into a famous victory, everything probably had to go Scotland’s way – including everything they couldn’t control – and it didn’t. They got a little bit unlucky with the conditions.

From seats in the Lothian stand, you don’t actually feel the wind, so need other clues to the conditions on the pitch – the touch judge’s flag, the trees behind the main stand etc. In the first half, the flags were definitely fluttering and Scotland were able to benefit a little from the wind, but the trees were generally upright. Come the second half, those treetops were pointing directly at Murrayfield, making it harder for the Scots to exit as cleanly.

And the sun, which was somewhat in French eyes first half, had moved round to a pretty awkward place. It led to a couple of dropped balls.

Scotland could not afford any mistakes, and errors unfortunately did creep in as the match wore on. If it was Scotland’s day, perhaps they wouldn’t have lost replacement hooker Molly Wright within seconds of coming on to a serious-looking injury or then conceded a try while they were probably still coming to terms with that (although massive shout out to Elis Martin who put in an impressive 79 minute performance).

Or if it was Scotland’s day, the excellent Sara Cox might have seen a couple French offences that they got away with near the end (those only go your way when it’s your day, the ref won’t see everything). France were well worth the win, but Scotland will be frustrated not to have at least a losing bonus point and who knows, on a luckier day, the result may have even fallen their way.

After last year’s 55-0 drubbing, to be within 3 points in the 80th minute, and a bit of luck away from it potentially being even tighter, is a promising sign.

Have Scotland taken the big leap?

It was remarked upon plenty in the media around the game, but this was such a contrast from the disappointing loss away to France last year – even with a few minutes to go, Scotland were in the game.

We won’t be able to tell for sure until the end of this tournament, and particularly until after they face England next week, whether Scotland have actually taken a big step in closing the gap with professional contracts bedding in.

The performances in the first two weeks are definitely encouraging signs. In both matches, the most positive thing is that it feels like it is fixable things that haven’t quite gone right rather than being massively off the pace.

They haven’t been played off the park by more powerful teams who went professional earlier. Even if this isn’t quite as the big leap we need quite yet, it is so encouraging that Scotland are building on their success at the end of last year’s Six Nations and in WXV2.

Soon, it might just be smaller steps they need to be right up there challenging allcomers.

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