SO CLOSE and yet so far. If a Scotland rugby supporters had a quid for every time that lament has passed their lips they could buy up half the contents of the Louvre.
Putting aside the fact that, had this been a Six Nations or World Cup match, the Scots would have taken at least a draw from a venue where they haven’t tasted victory since 1999 by kicking an injury-time penalty, the fact is that, yet again, they had done the hard work, got into a winning position, held firm in the face of ferocious French attack and still conspired to give it away at the death.
With Les Bleus, who were actually Les Rouges for the night, hammering at the door in the closing ten minutes, the dark blue line held firm. When they managed to bundle another desperate attack down the left into touch there was the chance to relieve the pressure and, perhaps see out a game they led 16-12 at the time.
However, the lineout, which had been a problem all evening, once again failed to secure the ball and the French came again. This time they were not to be denied and left wing Noa Nakaitaci burst into the line to squeeze over to the right of the Scottish posts.
It brought back recent memories of the home match against Italy in this year’s Six Nations when, in the same corner, the Azzurri scrum had been repelled, a penalty won, only for Peter Horne to miss touch and hand the opposition a lifeline that they grabbed with both hands.
It is vital that Scotland break out of this pattern of being a team who can threaten to win but fail to get the job done. That cost them in the last World Cup when both Argentina and England snatched late victories that put them on an early plane. It was the story of this year’s Six Nations and it is likely that there will be similar knife-edge encounters in England coming up.
Even after the try had been conceded, Scotland got themselves in place to inflict a killer blow but were not clinical enough, with Matt Scott guilty of a wild pass into touch when Scotland had numbers out wide close to the French line.
Scotland coach Vern Cotter does not need to be told, of course, and after the match said: “We know we need to be more accurate. There was a little bit of excitement and we have to stay calm and controlled. I thought we ramped up the physical side of things against a very physical French team. Our defence got up high and we made some good tackles again and put them into situations where they couldn’t develop the game.
“The guys threw their bodies on the line today. We were not accurate but there was total commitment. There was 100 per cent commitment from everybody. You’ve got to be proud to see that.”
Cotter was right to accentuate the positives because, for all the frustration at not getting the win, there was much to admire in the Scottish performance.
The lineout was a worry and the coach said he would look closely at what went wrong, though he was keen to praise the way the French defended that part of the game. On the flipside, the scrum was a triumph. Even after the early loss of prop Al Dickinson with a head knock, the visiting pack dominated the French in this phase and won a series of penalties.
The final stages of the game were played at an impressive intensity and produced great excitement but, prior to that, it was, in truth, a scrappy affair.
On a damp night and on a pitch which cut up badly, the ball often resembled a bar of soap and neither side were able to build up sustained periods of possession.
The French were marginally the more threatening but Scotland clung to their coat-tails and refused to let them get away. Indeed, they went in at the interval 9-6 ahead as Greig Laidlaw edged the kicking duel with Fredi Michalak.
France, who had been talking in the build-up to the game about posting a confidence-boosting high-scoring win, were clearly stung and started the second half strongly, managing to edge ahead for the first time when Michalak and then Scott Spedding from over 50 metres converted penalties.
However, the increasingly vocal Stade de France crowd were stunned into silence just after the hour mark when Scotland turned over possession in their own 22 and sparked a dangerous attack. Laidlaw showed every ounce of his rugby nous to spot the gap and pinged an expertly judged cross-field kick which, you could immediately tell, full-back Spedding would be toiling to reach ahead of the fast-advancing Tommy Seymour. The Scottish wing flicked past the despairing hands of the South African-born Frenchman and strolled under the posts.
Hopes of a rare Scottish win in Paris rose and then faltered as Nakaitaci broke the resistance, but it was encouraging to see them hit back again. The excellent Mark Bennett almost sneaked through but was held by his shirt, then Scott had his rush of blood to the head as the Scots pressed. When a penalty came at the end, there was a noble death or glory push for the famous win but it was not to be. So close and yet so far again then, but much to applaud.
Cotter concluded: “We are getting into more and more situations. Greig is talking about playing to win and that’s something that is obviously being developed.
“Over the four games there has been consistency in the performances. We just need to become more consistent and become more accurate.”
Scorers: France – Try: Nakaitaci. Con: Parra. Pens: Michalak (3), Spedding. Scotland – Try: Seymour. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw (3).
France: Spedding; Huget, Bastareaud, Fofana, Nakaitaci; Michalak, Tillous-Borde; Ben Arous, Guirado, Slimani, Pape, Flanquart, Dusautoir, Chouly, Picamoles. Subs: Dumoulin for Fofana (34), Tales for Michalak (72), Parra for Tillous-Borde (59), Szarzewski for Ben Arous (56), Debaty for Guirado (56), Mas for Slimani (56), Le Roux for Pape (52), Nyanga for Picamoles (65).
Scotland: Maitland; Seymour, Bennett, Scott, Visser; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson, Ford, Nel, R Gray, J Gray, Wilson, Hardie, Denton. Subs: Lamont for Seymour (67), Reid for Dickinson (6), Brown for Ford (64), Welsh for Nel (59), Swinson for J. Gray (62), Strokosch for Wilson (53). Not used: Hidalgo-Clyne, Weir.