SCOTLAND’S Six Nations Championship finished as it had begun, with a lesson in superior finishing skills from a side touted in January as favourites for the title.
After lengthy periods of courageous defending by Kelly Brown’s team, two moments of sublime running skills skittled the Scottish defence in the final quarter, to take a prized first win in Paris in 14 years out of Scotland’s reach.
The most bizarre fact to emerge from the 2013 tournament, however, is that neither of the teams that most convincingly disposed of the Scots took possession of the silverware and, incredibly, France still endured their worst-ever Six Nations experience by ending up bottom of the heap. Italy’s defeat of Ireland left a battle between the Irish and French for last place while Wales saved their best for last to deny England a Grand Slam and retain the trophy.
France took to the field in the Stade de France knowing they had to win by 16 points to overtake Ireland, but Scotland’s overall defensive display, and a late try from Tim Visser, denied them that.
No-one forecast this finale eight weeks ago. Unpredictable it was, but there are other words to describe what has, ultimately, been one of the most unedifying spring spectacles for some time, which also places in context Scotland’s third-place.
When they first claimed third spot, under Ian McGeechan in 2001, it was with two wins and a draw, and when Frank Hadden’s team repeated the feat five years later he did so with three victories, over France and England at home and away to Italy.
This time they did it with just two wins and, as in 2006, it came off the back of a whitewash season, which is why there is rightly an air of bridled optimism around the Scottish game this morning. In each of the other 11 years of the Six Nations, Scotland have ended the tournament either bottom or second bottom, and two wins from five was always the realistic target for improvement this term.
When Scotland headed back down the Stade de France tunnel at half-time last night, leading 6-0, hopes were raised among Scottish supporters. The Scots were on the wrong side of the possession share – they garnered just 35 per cent in this game – but Greig Laidlaw’s ability to turn meagre moments with the ball into pressure on opponents, and then kick goals when they made errors, remained true.
From a lineout penalty, the scrum-half opened the scoring with a huge kick from more than 45 metres, and Scotland should have done better in the 16th minute when a smartly switched counter-attack caught France unawares and, from Laidlaw’s superb kick into touch, Jim Hamilton stole the French lineout, but it was loose and the French survived.
Minutes later, hands in the ruck by a Scotsman squandered another good platform, and more stolen lineouts – Scotland grabbed six in all – were wasted as the visitors continued with their tournament propensity for coughing up hard-won ball all too easily. Winning ball has not been the problem, rather keeping hold of it through phases.
Scotland’s defence was magnificent around the half-hour mark with France hooker Benjamin Kayser and centre Wesley Fofana both held up on the Scots line in a French onslaught, and the pack dug in as France tried to drive Scotland back to their line with a head-numbing series of scrums.
The Scots lost wing Sean Maitland to a leg injury, and his replacement, Max Evans, was soon holding his right arm as the intensity of the French ball-carrying mounted. But minutes before the interval, the jinky runner made a terrific midfield break, following the lead of Stuart Hogg with the kind of ambitious running lacking in Scotland’s recent play. Again it came to nothing, however, and Hogg was just wide with a drop-goal attempt from halfway, before the half finished with another hard-won turnover by Scottish forwards, Kelly Brown and Alasdair Strokosch working tirelessly with 34 tackles between them.
France headed inside to a chorus of boos around the stadium and one felt that, if Scotland could force the hosts under pressure early in the second half, the atmosphere around an under-performing home side could turn decidedly nasty.
However, Scotland were penalised at the first ruck on their return, then had a lineout stolen – one of four they lost – and Hogg wound up Frederic Michalak in a scrap. It was perhaps more an indication of the Frenchman’s frustrations at little having gone right for him in the first half as he sought “afters” with Hogg, but when the Scottish scrum was penalised for collapsing, Michalak stroked over his first penalty and the tide turned.
The French forwards began to pick up confidence, and the ball. Scotland’s tackling dropped off and Michalak prodded France in front for the first time with 27 minutes remaining, and there was an exciting new width to the home side’s attack.
Laidlaw kept Scottish hopes alive with a third penalty, but then Hogg endured the good and the bad of a full-back’s lot when he produced a try-saving tackle on French replacement prop Vincent Debaty at one side only to slip off the brilliantly evasive Fofana on the other flank, and be left to watch the Clermont centre racing in for the game’s first try.
Michalak’s conversion opened up a seven-point lead with 14 minutes to go, and the French were now riding waves of fresh belief. Mathieu Bastareaud broke the Scottish defence and though Sean Lamont got back to deny him a try, France had Scotland in their grip and Maxime Medard applied the finishing touch to another flowing attack.
Michalak was forced off with a shoulder injury, to a standing ovation, and then Scotland responded, Hogg launching Evans on a fine break up the right. A pass to Ruaridh Jackson and a try was certain, but Evans was wrapped up and the attack came to grief on a Jackson knock-on.
Still, Scotland finished the tournament as they had begun, with a winger scoring a try for a rare tally of seven in the championship. It came from a training ground move that released Matt Scott, who showed a fine turn of pace over 50 metres to leave Visser to stretch his legs over the last 25 metres and score his second Six Nations try.
It did little to alter the fact that France had the game sewn up, but it ruined home hopes of a late penalty that would have taken them off the foot of the table, and ensured a wholly respectable third-place finish for Scotland.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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