Scotland declared their intent to run the ball against Wales in next Sunday’s battle of first-weekend losers in the Six Nations Championship. While the Welsh were licking their wounds, actual and spiritual, from the opening setback against England, the Scots took a degree of heart from being beaten 15-8 by a muscular France in Paris, and their full-back Stuart Hogg promised derring-do at Murrayfield.
“There are mixed emotions, obviously,” said Hogg, who helped create the only try of the match for Edinburgh’s Dougie Fife. “The result comes first and it’s not the result we wanted. The pleasing thing is we know where we went wrong, and the boys are really confident. [Head coach] Vern Cotter wants us to play an exciting brand of rugby and I believe we’ve done that over the last wee while. It’s very much ‘go out and enjoy your rugby and express yourselves’, within the boundaries of the game plan. The boys love that style of play.”
Such is Hogg’s totemic status to the Scots it is easy to forget this disciple of dash is still only 22. The man himself raised a smile among reporters when he said he had been trying to forget his red card against Wales last March, for a horrendous late tackle on the Welsh fly-half Dan Biggar, when Scotland lost 51-3 in Cardiff. “It’s very much gone in my mind, until you brought it back!” he said. “Mistakes will happen, it’s how you move on. We watched Wales closely on Friday – where they are strong and where their weaknesses lie – and hopefully next week we can exploit that.”
Fife had come on as a replacement for the injured wing Tommy Seymour – the Scots also lost centre Alex Dunbar to a shoulder knock, taking the number of injuries in their squad to 16 – and he was on the end of a high-quality multi-phase try for Scotland after 39 minutes.
But while the Scots attended the post-match function in full kilt and caboodle they could have been smarter on the field. Fife conceded three points by stupidly throwing the ball away when France wanted it; the penalty was one of five kicked by Camille Lopez and it put France ahead 12-8 in the 50th minute.
Later in the second half the other Scotland wing, Tim Visser, missed an interception by a few centimetres, to the relief of the man who threw the pass, replacement French hooker Benjamin Kayser.
“That would have been game over,” said Kayser, “but if we’d finished on one of our six or seven occasions we got near the line in the second half it would have been a lot more stress-free. Scotland were what we expected – very good line-outs, very athletic, a team with a lot of rhythm and a lot of intensity in their game and they never gave up.”
In a city freshly associated with the shock of terrorism – the last thing you see before boarding the train for London is an ad for a compendium of 60 Charlie Hebdo cartoons – perspective is always intriguing. “Soporifique… a team without ideas… fortunately there are still seven months to the World Cup,” was how sports newspaper L’Equipe described France’s efforts.
Philippe Saint-André, the head coach whose three Six Nations campaigns to date have each seen Les Bleus finish in the bottom half of the table, was more upbeat, but not much. “We should have scored when we were 15 against 14 [Johnnie Beattie went to the sin bin on 61 minutes], we were impatient and that’s something to work on before we play Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.”
Saint-André kept returning to the word “power” and he upped the wattage in France’s driving maul by sending on the 145kg prop Uini Atonio in the second half. Possibly the ultimate in impact players, the Samoan-born captain of La Rochelle helped sort out the struggling French scrum – not that there were many set-pieces.
Saint-André also said: “This is the kind of game we’d have lost two years ago.” But maybe not against the Scots. Their dismal record is one win and 15 losses against France since 2000 – the Auld Alliance is lopsided in rugby.
Rory Kockott, the France scrum-half, appeared unsure about keeping his place alongside fly-half Lopez in Dublin, where the direct opponents may be Ireland’s Lions half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, the latter having spent the last 18 months in the French league with Racing Métro.
“They’re two great players,” said Kockott. “Johnny’s played in France, he knows what it’s all about. What more can we do than go there with the expectation of playing our best?”
Has French rugby seen the best of Sexton, who is returning to Leinster next season? “Every player has got a personal decision and I’m sure he figures that’s the best for his career,” said Kockott. “You can only back the guy, he’s a great player.”
Cotter was realistic. “The first feeling is frustration and disappointment,” the Kiwi said. “The positive side is that we scored a try and they didn’t. Next week’s game won’t be the same as this one and we will have to develop something to surprise the Welsh. Both teams will be coming in after defeats so it will be tense. It’s just about rolling our sleeves up again.”
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