THERE is no escaping the fact that Scotland could and should have won on Saturday. They were ahead for more than half the match, they missed two penalties in the last quarter and Yoann Huget’s interception try was an avoidable 14-point turnaround.
It was a win that got away and that is why the late penalty by Jean-Marc Doussain which gave France a 19-17 win felt like such a kick in the guts to Scott Johnson’s team. Narrow losses like this can be harder to take than heavy, deserved defeats.
But, as they look ahead to Saturday’s match against Wales in Cardiff, Scotland can ill afford to dwell on what might have been. If they are to take more than that single-point victory in Italy from this season’s Six Nations Championship, they have to focus not only on their costly errors against the French, but also on what went right.
Confident and assertive from the start, Scotland looked like an outfit whose collective self-belief, so badly battered a month earlier in the Calcutta Cup game, had been restored. The glaring failings of an understrength French side made it easier for the home team to maintain their high tempo but, even making allowances for that, this was still a significantly improved showing from the Scots.
They will need to carry on getting better if they are to have a chance against Wales, but David Denton, for one, is confident they can do so. “There’s no doubt that we can improve,” the No 8 said.
“People must be sick of hearing us saying that we’re growing as a squad, that we’re young and we’ll get better. But it is the truth. We are a young group, we’re building our experience and getting caps.
“We deserved to win that game. To say that it’s gutting, something I heard Johnno say, doesn’t quite cover it. It’s worse than that.
“We were the better team. You don’t always get what you deserve and, of course, Italy would have been gutted to lose to us last time. Although we did play the better rugby, losing to a drop goal at the death must have been hard for them.
“We’ll look at the late penalty – but that wasn’t what lost us the game. It was numerous penalties before that. We were giving away too many in our own half and we have to improve on that.
“From the inside, I can tell you that it feels like we’re moving in the right direction. Speaking as a forward, the most important thing is that we’ve bullied someone. We’ve bullied the French, renowned for having the toughest forwards in the championship – and the strongest in the world, apart from maybe South Africa. We take a lot of pride from that performance and take a lot of confidence with us to Wales.”
The priority this week, as Denton explained, will be rest and recuperation after the most exhausting match he and many others had experienced. Once that is done, the emphasis will be on finessing the game plan for Cardiff, but, above all, on maintaining the dynamism up front and the cutting edge in the backs that together took Scotland so close to a win against France.
“I’ve never been so tired after a Test match. I was saying earlier that the most physical game I’d ever played was against France here two years ago. Now this has topped that. It’s a heavy pitch, of course, but the pace made it really tough. Everyone is really feeling it, and it’s going to be a very important few days in terms of recovery.
“We might be going to Cardiff with a slightly different gameplan. But, as a forward pack, we go there knowing we need to be assertive.
“Look at the ball the backs got against France, and look at what they can do with it. We’ve got a very potent back line. Tommy Seymour looked particularly great against France.
“If we can give those guys space, we’re a team that very few will be able to deal with. So the most important thing for us is to make sure we get that stranglehold up front.
“It’s massively important that, after France saying all week that they were going to dominate us up front, we came out and really dominated them. We put them to the sword in the forwards.
“The scrum was outstanding and the tight five, in particular, were brilliant. Jim Hamilton bossed the lineout really well again, while the front row and locks were brilliant in the scrum. That’s a step forward for us as a team.
“And we’ve also got to mention the finishing in the backs, because those are the two areas we’ve received a lot of stick for in the last couple of years. The criticism has been that our forwards haven’t fronted up and our backs haven’t finished. Against France, though, the finishing was outstanding and the forwards were brilliant.”
Denton was announced as the official man of the match while the contest was still going on, although there were others – Stuart Hogg for his attacking flair, Richie Gray for his indefatigable defence – who had at least as good a claim to that title. Above all, however, it was a solid all-round display. It was still flawed, of course, but the execution of an astute game plan was encouraging enough to convince Denton that Scotland can stand up to the Welsh.
“A huge emphasis for us during the build-up was attacking France where they were looking to attack us,” he said. “That worked, with our maul defence being particularly brilliant. When you play against a team who is coming down to bully you, that’s massively important.
“We knew it was going to be a fast game, having a Kiwi ref on a dry day. And the pitch held up relatively well compared to recent weeks.
“I’m looking forward playing in Wales, though, because it’s always nice to play indoors. I was nervous all day against France because of the wind. It’s not fun catching those high balls under the wind.
“So it’s going to be a big difference us at Millennium Stadium. Other than Murrayfield, it’s my favourite stadium to play at. It’s a cauldron, the sound echoes around. I can’t wait.”