Scotland 17 France 19: Three talking points
Scotland 17 France 19: Three talking points as the visitors secure a thrilling Six Nations win at Murrayfield
Few people could argue that France really deserved to win a ninth successive match against Scotland today. In 80 minutes of rugby, Scotland were certainly the better team, buoyed by their last-minute win over Italy in Rome last time out. Everything seemed to be going well for them in the first half: dominant set-pieces, training ground moves producing tries, and a French side, which again had failed to turn up despite their performance in Cardiff two weeks ago and the threats made by head coach Philippe Saint-Andre should it be a performance repeated. If Scotland had a kicker of Leigh Halfpenny’s ability, the result would have been a given. But they’re certainly a half penny short of a 90 per cent kicker. Scrum-half Greig Laidlaw may be first choice, and has been since the retirement of Chris Paterson in 2011, but he’s not always reliable and doesn’t have the range to really make a difference when it matters and throwing the ball to Duncan Weir doesn’t always produce the results. Scott Johnson is partial to hammering on about the benefits of scoreboard pressure, but Scotland rarely produce it. Perhaps from distance the answer is Stuart Hogg, who has the range if not always the accuracy and is rarely utilised for club or country, but bit-part kickers, if they have the range, are better than kickers you know are more likely to kick short. Welsh fans will happily remind anyone remotely interested of the abilities of monster kickers over the years: Gavin Henson and James Hook before Halfpenny, and waiting in the wings when not injured is Rhys Patchell – Glasgow Warriors fans have already witnessed the range of his boot this season.
Quel triomphe, quelle victoire!
It is quite incredible that after four rounds France have won three times and still have an outside chance of winning the Six Nations. It’s almost an injustice that Italy will almost certainly be wooden spoon recipients with no wins from their five matches – they have certainly turned up more than France have. Take the England match, aside from spells at the start and end of the game, they were largely absent as England stormed back to take what looked like certain victory only for Les Bleus to find something near the end. Their win over Italy was hardly better – tries coming in a short spell, which included a healthy slice of interception breakaways. It is a bold statement to axe one of your best forwards for something that—while unsavoury—produced neither a further sanction from either the officials (it could have been a red card offence) or the tournament organisers (likely a lengthy ban), but Philippe Saint-Andre is happy to use such threats to force his team to turn up. Maybe they just don’t like to travel or are just warming up for Ireland’s visit to the Stade de France. There were some lively line breaks against Wales, but they were snuffed out. France’s backline can be good, devastating even, but only if there isn’t an opponent near them. Against Scotland, they were almost as bad as against Wales last time out – the only improvement was that they didn’t give Scotland as many kickable chances as with Wales. Despite an ineffective pack, largely clueless half-back pairing, and a moped-paced centre who takes an eternity to get going, they showed the importance of taking their points when they’re on offer. It is a victory that Les Bleus will certainly savour, even if nobody else will. If they somehow shock championship leaders Ireland next week, the incredulity will be unprecedented.
For everything that went well for Scotland at Murrayfield, there was a lot in their game management that went wrong. There will certainly be an inquiry as to why 45m pot shots were favoured over kicking to touch and allowing their dominant pack to do their thing against opposition who were unable to compete – at the very least there’s the chance of a kick closer to the posts. There is clearly a confidence in Scotland’s backline after a few games together, but there’ll also be questions about Weir’s ridiculous pass that led to the interception for France’s try when it seemed nailed on that Scotland would score a try that would have killed of the game. Questions also need to be asked about players’ inability to play the referee. Tim Swinson may not have made the initial tackle in his 22 in the closing stages, but he still had to roll away. Referee Craig Pollock is known for how he sees the breakdown and his consistency had been clear throughout the match. Either the replacement lock wasn’t aware of how the referee had been making decisions or, he did and, he made the infringement anyway. The final problem was just how fragmented Scotland had become in the closing stages. Particularly in a close match, one would expect a team to employ a stricter collective effort, but it looked more as though individuals were seeking the glory moment enjoyed by Weir in Rome two weeks ago. There are a lot of lessons to learn. As the French found out, make mistakes like they that and they’ll be blown away in Cardiff.