Marc Lièvremont has been here before. Back in 1998, on his one and only playing appearance at the home of Scottish rugby, he plundered a brace of tries from the blindside flank as France racked up a record 51 points in what proved to be a Gallic Grand Slam season. It remains to be seen whether Bernard Laporte's replacement can finish with a Grand Chelem in his debut campaign as an international coach. Here yesterday, though, Lièvremont and his new model French army emerged from their opening battle with a mightily impressive victory and a dash of va-va-voom.
They did so blooding six new caps along the way, although it was a veteran from the conservative rule of Laporte who did the most to show that the future for French rugby may well be bright, tinged with a dazzling shade of orange. Wearing boots of a tangerine luminosity, Vincent Clerc followed in the studmarks of his new national coach, dancing two tries past a home guard of raggle-taggle Warmington-on-Sea dimensions. The other try was claimed by the Toulouse man's fellow-wing, Julien Malzieu – one of four debutants in Lièvremont's starting XV (two more were summoned from bench duty) – on an afternoon when the hosts not so much froze in the face of expectation but plunged into deep freeze.
On the evidence of this dire, thoroughly disjointed, showing, Scotland can kiss goodbye to the hope they harboured of mounting a championship challenge. They may well be saying au revoir to Andy Henderson, too, the Glasgow inside-centre having administered a kiss of the Glaswegian variety on his opposite number, Damien Traille, in the wake of Clerc's opening try. "I didn't see it," Frank Hadden, Scotland's head coach, said afterwards, but the cranial connection was spotted by Chris White, the television match official, and seems certain to be the subject of a citing.
The Scots are also likely to be without Rory Lamont when they head into the resurgent dragons' den in Cardiff next Saturday, the full-back having been helped from the field with a damaged ankle on the hour mark yesterday. "Obviously the dressing-room is bitterly disappointed," Hadden said, reflecting on an afternoon of unremitting Scottish misery.
Only in the opening stages did the Scots even flatter to deceive, Dan Parks landing a drop goal and pinning back the French with a couple of raking touch-finders. As it was, the Scottish cause had the look of a losing one from the moment Clerc broke through, with all of 12 minutes on the clock. He did so after a deft exchange of passes with full-back Cedric Heymans in a sweeping right-wing move. The penultimate pass, as Clerc looped his way round his team-mate, was clearly forward, but it was a fine flash of French flair, nevertheless.
Unfortunately, it was followed by a flash of red mist as Henderson, on the occasion of his 50th international appearance, locked horns with Traille on the try-line. The head butt went unseen by Alain Rolland but, after consultation with White, the referee restarted play (following Jean-Baptiste Élissalde's successful conversion) with a penalty for France from the half-way line.
There was now a tangible deflation of wind from Caledonian sails. Traille's howitzer right boot hit the target with a penalty from halfway and then Scotland suffered a second kick in the teeth – administered by Malzieu, who collected his own punt to apply a scoring touch after both Lamont and Parks failed to intercept. Élissalde converted, leaving France 17-3 to the good with 23 minutes on the clock.
Parks chipped at the deficit with a penalty but Scotland were unable to build the momentum needed for a second-half fightback, failing to get into the French 22 – let alone within striking range – throughout a lamentable third quarter. Traille kicked another long ranger as a near-funereal silence descended on Murrayfield. It was lifted by the huge roar that greeted Chris Paterson's arrival from the replacements' bench. Chris Cusiter followed soon afterwards, although by then it was the cavalry that Scotland needed, Clerc having collected his own kick inside from the right touchline to snaffle his second try. David Skrela added the extras.
"It was a surprise to win by 21 points," Lièvremont reflected. "I think we did have some luck on our side but we imposed our own rhythm and pace on the game." Unlike the leaden-footed Scots, who now trudge not homewards but to Cardiff to think again...
Scotland: R Lamont (Sale); N Walker (Ospreys), N De Luca (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), S Webster (Edinburgh); D Parks (Glasgow), M Blair (Edinburgh); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), N Hines (Perpignan), J Hamilton (Leicester), J White (Sale, capt), J Barclay (Glasgow), D Callam (Edinburgh). Replacements: K Brown (Glasgow) for Callam, 50; S MacLeod (Llanelli) for Hamilton, 55; G Kerr (Edinburgh) for Murray, 58; H Southwell (Edinburgh) for Lamont, 60; C Paterson (Gloucester) for Parks, 60; C Cusiter (Perpignan) for Blair, 66; F Thomson (Glasgow) for Ford, 75.
France: C Heymans (Toulouse); V Clerc (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), D Traille (Biarritz), J Malzieu (Clermont); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), J-B Élissalde (Toulouse); L Faure (Sale), W Servat (Toulouse), J Brugnaut (Dax), L Nallet (Castres, capt), L Jacquet (Clermont), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), E Vermeulen (Clermont). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Servat, 50; N Mas (Perpignan) for Brugnaut, 50; J Bonnaire (Clermont) for Vermeulen, 54; D Skrela (Stade Français) for Trinh-Duc, 58; A Mela (Albi) for Jacquet, 62; M Parra (Bourgoin) for Élissalde, 65; A Rougerie (Clermont) for Clerc, 73;
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
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