A teeth-grindingly tenacious battle ended with Scotland’s dire recent record against France getting worse still, and the hosts joining Ireland and England as first-weekend winners in the Six Nations Championship.
France’s 15 wins and one loss against Scotland since the Five Nations Championship became Six in 2000 is a dominant run second only to England’s 15 straight victories over Italy. And well though Scotland’s forwards played in parts, the overall task was beyond them once more.
There was no discernible escalation of the normal security around the stadium for the first big international sports event in Paris since the terrorist attacks of last month. “La Marseillaise” rang out loud but it always does – often turning swiftly to jeers in recent years when the French, with three successive finishes in the bottom half of the Six Nations table, have disappointed. In the first half yesterday there was a pleasing element of liberté in their handling; a willingness to offload led by the thrusting fly-half Camille Lopez. In the opposition ranks, the French-based No 8 Johnnie Beattie, of Castres, was a little too determined to put on a show, at the cost of a couple of spills of the ball in heavy contact.
Scotland had a core of eight of the buoyant Glasgow team starting, although one of those, the wing Tommy Seymour, went off early with a hip injury to join a sad litany of crocked Scots: 10 backs now and six forwards, including two possible captains in the scrum-half Chris Cusiter and lock Grant Gilchrist. As it turned out, Seymour’s replacement, Dougie Fife would score the opening try.
In the meantime France led 9-3 – three penalties by Lopez to one from Greig Laidlaw, the Scottish points earned in a collapsed scrum by the venerable tight-head prop Euan Murray. Fife was teed up brilliantly by Mark Bennett and Murray as Scotland at last managed a sustained attack. How lucky they are to have a jaw-dropping talent like Stuart Hogg; a searing run that the full-back finds so easy opened up France on their right flank, the pleasingly elusive Bennett joined in, and via a recycling job by Beattie, Fife had his first try in his fourth Test at the opposite corner. Laidlaw’s conversion attempt hit the post.
“Six Nations” is a partial misnomer these days; France had three South African-born starters, while the New Zealand flanker Blair Cowan was beavering away for the Scots in a seesaw breakdown battle. The scrum had more success early in the second half too, no doubt to the delight of Scotland’s head coach, Vern Cotter, another Kiwi who has quickly picked up the sobriquet “Stern Vern” since moving from Clermont Auvergne last summer.
His team beat Argentina and Tonga in the autumn, and lost narrowly to New Zealand, all at Murrayfield. But on this foreign field, Lopez made it 12-8 with a penalty on 49 minutes, as those in tartan ached for the promising midfield combo of Russell, Alex Dunbar and Bennett to do something sexy away from the engrossing, but suffocating, arm wrestle.
The French changed their front row, and with referee Nigel Owens fussing away getting a scrum set straight, but to Scottish astonishment he awarded a penalty against Murray for collapsing. Another tick in the box, perhaps, of the stattos who insist scrum penalties are much likelier to be awarded to the home team. Scotland were let off by Lopez’s kick hitting a post.
Then desperate Scottish tackling prevented a breakaway by one of the French South Africans, Bernard le Roux. A mighty French maul spelt more trouble and Beattie was sent to the sin-bin for pulling it down but a try was averted to keep the gap at four points. All the while the starting Scottish front five grafted manfully, with Ross Ford at the heart of a crucial turnover of Mathieu Bastareaud near the visitors’ posts, from another maul.
Jim Hamilton came on for Jonny Gray, the younger of the doughty, second-row brothers, to give Scotland some mauling impetus of their own, but Dunbar sadly went off gingerly holding his right arm. In the 72nd minute Tim Visser almost had a dramatic interception and Scotland were thankful for Bennett stripping Yoann Huget of the ball with a few metres of a score.
Well done the Scots for negotiating the resulting defensive scrum, but the French goalline was a distant target and when Russell booted a penalty to touch in the 76th minute it yielded only a lightweight raid, snuffed out when Bennett was tackled. Up the other end, Lopez kicked his fifth penalty and that was that.
France: S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud (R Lamerat 72), W Fofana, T Thomas; C Lopez, R Kockott (M Parra 55); A Menini (E Ben Arous 41), G Guirado (B Kayser 48), R Slimani (U Atonio 55), P Pape (R Taofifenua 62), Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt, L Goujon 80), B le Roux, D Chouly.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour (D Fife 17), M Bennett, A Dunbar (P Horne 68), T Visser; F Russell, G Laidlaw (capt, S Hidalgo-Clyne 79); A Dickinson (G Reid 65), R Ford (F Brown 68), E Murray (G Cross 65), R Gray (J Hamilton 65), J Gray, R Harley (A Strokosch 53), B Cowan (Harley 55-62), J Beattie.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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