ANOTHER stirring display by Scotland, more progress with two well-taken tries and real encouragement from dousing the fire of World Cup finalists France for much of this RBS Six Nations Championship match.
But still defeat. Still not enough and Scotland’s losing run extends to five on the trot for the first time since 2004, and ever-nearer a sixth straight tournament in which Scotland will battle Italy to avoid the wooden spoon.
There can be no disguising the improvement shown by Scotland as they raced into a 10-0 lead with a much tighter, composed and accurate attack. Stuart Hogg exploded concerns that too much expectation was being heaped on the teenager’s shoulders in his first Test start, lighting up Scotland’s attack in the first half and scoring the opening try – the first witnessed at Murrayfield since Italy were beaten here in the World Cup warm-up, with scores by Alasdair Dickinson and Mike Blair.
The key lay with Scottish possession and when the hosts held the ball through phases and got it to their back three, France were scrambling to survive and Scotland soaring in this game. But having slipped off the pace in the final 15 minutes of the first phase and then again let the French back in after regaining the lead in the 55th minute, the Scots could not find a way back against a strong France side fighting hard to keep their championship hopes on track.
As the match moved into the final quarter, the French pack had their fingers firmly into the game, were exerting suffocating control in the scrum and slowing the tempo, and, fatally, referee Wayne Barnes was swinging their way with 50/50 calls, and a couple that were just plain wrong.
A clear indication that Scotland understood what it would take to beat this French side emerged from the kick-off with a whirlwind opening ten minutes in which every member of the home side appeared to play his part in running with conviction, passing well and retaining possession through phases, which delighted the capacity Murrayfield crowd.
The third game into the 2012 championship, the improvement in Scottish skills was also apparent, the ability to follow breakers, provide support and maintain momentum, and not ruin good work with errors, notable and encouraging for the Scottish support.
Captain Ross Ford provided a towering lead begun with a thumping run into his opposite number Dimitri Szarzewski which left the Frenchman on his back and clutching air. Though Greig Laidlaw missed a first penalty attempt, from close to halfway and the right touchline, the momentum continued to build with John Barclay – who, with ‘Man of the Match’ Ross Rennie and David Denton, matched the quality French back row – charging off a lineout, tighthead prop Geoff Cross regaining the initiative at a ruck and Ford then side-stepping Szarzewski.
When the hosts brought Hogg onto ball, the attack lifted a notch in pace and threat, the 19-year-old full-back marking his first start with a bold run on the left and then breaking on the right moments later.
However, with eight minutes gone, Hogg enjoyed his dream moment and breathed new life into Murrayfield and Scotland’s championship campaign. Laidlaw provided neat work inside after good composure and ball retention by the Scots on the French 22. The stand-off’s burst of pace created an overlap, Lee Jones took his pass and fed Hogg to send the youngster careering to the right-hand corner.
His pace was too much for the French defence and he dived over. Heving been wound up all week for failing to celebrate his ‘debut try’ in Cardiff, which was disallowed by French referee Romain Poite, he made sure everyone saw his delight with this one.
There was no doubt this time as he also emulated his mentor, Jim Renwick, who had presented the jerseys to Hogg and the Scottish team on Saturday, and also scored on his first Test start against the French, almost exactly 40 years ago. In 1972, Renwick’s try put Scotland 14-3 up and though the French came back another try by John Frame sealed a home win.
In 2012, the Scots crucially could not create that daylight between the sides, Laidlaw edging them 10-0 ahead with a penalty after 25 minutes, only for a loose kick by Hogg, a penalty against lock Richie Gray and a missed tackle by Laidlaw on opposite number Francois Trinh-Duc to open the door to a second try by Wesley Fofana, in his first two Tests, which Morgan Parra converted.
Scotland suffered when wing Rory Lamont attacked the restart and fell horribly on his right leg as he contested possession with No 8 Louis Picamoles, and was stretchered off, his horrendous luck with injuries rearing again. Mike Blair was also forced off, having failed to recover from a ‘dead leg’, and while it did not impact heavily on the Scottish team as Sean Lamont returned to his favoured wing spot and De Luca came off the bench, while Chris Cusiter replaced Blair, a first scrum penalty against Scotland let Parra level the scores at 10-10, with one successful penalty and one miss, just before the interval.
It was a deflating scoreline for the amount of effort Scotland had put into the first half, their scrum coping well under pressure and lineout very secure, but it underlined France’s ability to grasp points from little possession and the need for Scotland to keep the foot to the floor in their accuracy and tempo.
Scotland avoided the disastrous start to the second half that cost them heavily against England and Wales in recent games, but still fell behind five minutes in after prop Allan Jacobsen was penalised for trying to slow ball in the ruck. Referee Barnes then got the call wrong as Scotland fought back and instead of penalising French forwards, clearly offside at a ruck inside the 22, handed the visitors a scrum for a knock-on, a decision which brought howls of derision around Murrayfield.
Scotland also lost controller Laidlaw at this point, seemingly struggling with concussion, which handed a first international appearance to Duncan Weir and the Glasgow fly-half put in a good showing overall.
But the French stiffened their scrummage then by sending on their biggest prop, Vincent Debaty, and experienced hooker William Servat, and Scotland’s attempts to lift the tempo again was hindered by mistakes, from both sides.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson looked to inject fresh speed to the home pack by replacing Denton at No8 with Richie Vernon, one of the quickest players in the squad, and it proved timely as the Scots turned France over in their own 22 and then De Luca and Barclay combined to repeat the trick on halfway, to spark a second try.
De Luca was superbly alert to take Barclay’s pass deep into the French half, he fed Vernon and the big No 8 drew and passed to Lee Jones, who scampered round the cover and in for his first international try with 56 minutes on the clock. Weir converted and Scotland were 17-13 in front. But, crucially, the cheers had barely subsided when France counter-attacked to score again.
It was a controversial try, and one which the Scotland players were to criticise later, as Aurelien Rougerie was clearly offside and on the ground as he messed up Cusiter’s attempts to pick up the ball. Barnes waved play-on as France stole possession and broke from their own half.
Jones compounded the problem when he fell off a tackle on big Clermont wing Julien Malzieu and Medard was given a clear run through the 22.
Hogg recovered lost Scottish optimism with a brilliant step and break between Thierry Dusautoir and Rougerie on halfway and was setting up a pass wide on the French 22 when Parra knocked the ball from his hands.
Then Barnes provoked further fury in the home support when he ignored a high tackle by Pape on Weir and cynical killing of ball by Julien Bonnaire, which ended two more promising attacks by the Scots.
Fofana and Dusautoir, in particular, led France back downfield and the composed French built a platform for Lionel Beauxis, a substitute for the injured Medard, to drop a goal with 12 minutes left.
Perhaps as a result of the first hour’s effort, Scotland could not lift the tempo now when they needed it most, and while they defended well to keep France out, the energy levels were draining, mistakes creeping in and the game slipped from them.
Parra missed another penalty and Jones raised home hopes with a great break on the left, but was tackled into touch, and Parra duly drilled his last kick into the East Stand to deliver the knockout blow to a brave Scottish fight.