Lack of depth exposed as Scots fall long way short against France

Much has been made of Scotland’s improving strength in depth in recent years but it is by no means, as so chasteningly proved in Paris on Saturday, a bottomless pit.

Strides have assuredly been made and Scotland have ridden out injury crises and managed to register big wins without important players in the recent past. Indeed, not so long ago, the loss of 20-odd players would have seen a national coach genuinely struggling to field an international class XV.

But there are limits and the way new injuries beyond the already sizeable pre-tournament casualty list have forensically targeted Scotland in their most vulnerable areas has had a savage effect.

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As a nation we can perhaps get by without a star man or two but when so many crucial players and big personalities go at once the spine is visibly gone and the dip is inevitable.

Blair Kinghorn looks shell-shocked at the end of a match which reignited French pride. Picture: Adam Davy/PA WireBlair Kinghorn looks shell-shocked at the end of a match which reignited French pride. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Blair Kinghorn looks shell-shocked at the end of a match which reignited French pride. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire

That, however, doesn’t take away from just how disappointing Saturday’s performance was. Gregor Townsend spoke about it being below what the jersey demanded and, after spending the week expressing faith in the 23 he had cobbled together, was clearly disappointed with what was an error-strewn afternoon in which the Scots gift-wrapped an ego boost to a fragile home side who were teetering on a most un-French lack of self-belief after two painful defeats.

“If you look at every individual player and say did we play to our potential today, no,” admitted Townsend.

“If we had everyone available the potential of the team stretches with the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell who’ve played very well for us in the past, but we didn’t play to our potential and that’s what’s really disappointing.

“Look at some individuals who were making their debut in the Six Nations like Magnus Bradbury and Darcy Graham, some haven’t played that much at this level, those who came off the bench they did really well. So it wasn’t a question of the players we had, it was how we performed as a team.”

That the first 20 minutes of a Test match are important in terms of setting the tone is a cliche but some opening quarters are more important than others and you sensed this was one.

The dream would be the Scots getting on top of the French and, in turn the notoriously fickle Paris crowd getting on top of their own. Instead of the catcalls and whistles, however, the Tricolores were fluttering and the cheers cascading down the vast stands of Stade de France as Jacques Brunel’s heavily criticised side took out their frustrations on the startled Scots.

This is far from a vintage French side but they still have the Gallic attributes ingrained in their DNA and, with the sun on their backs, cut loose.

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The youngsters, which France so 
often fearlessly turn to in moments of existential stress, delivered as full-back Thomas Ramos, scrum-half Antoine Dupont and stand-off Romain Ntamack combined brilliantly for an electrifying opening try.

Helped by the TMO, the Scots were lucky to be only 10-3 down at the break but then thumbed their nose at such 
fortune by leaking a try, finished by wing Yoann Huget, straight after the break.

A 12-point gap is not catastrophic but in the context of this game it looked like Mont Blanc. Townsend spoke afterwards about not taking opportunities, a common criticism of his side, but the dispiriting thing on Saturday was that there weren’t really any opportunities. Scotland simply didn’t keep the ball long enough to create any.

There were a couple of desperate breaks which, came as such surprises that there were no Scots there to support them. The game was gone by the time Peter Horne put Ali Price in for a late consolation either side of a Gregory Alldritt pushover double which got France their bonus point. In hindsight, knowing that nothing was going to be taken home from this fixture, it may have been more beneficial for Adam Hastings to have been tested in the Paris cauldron for 80 minutes. Horne made a couple of mistakes but was dealt a difficult hand behind a pack that was being bullied and amidst a general gameplan that was falling apart from almost the first minute.

Hogg and Russell may grab the headlines but the absence of WP Nel and other key forwards were more noticeable as France’s behemoths bossed it up front.

Townsend, pictured, admitted after the game that he was not yet clear in his mind exactly what had gone so badly wrong.

“Not yet, that’s what the next few days are figuring out, why certain parts of our game [didn’t function],” he said.

“Our kick-chase which has been excellent so far this season, in this campaign, wasn’t accurate enough. Why we didn’t bring the same line speed in defence we didn’t bring against Ireland?

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“Part of the reason I know is that France played well and they ask more questions, or different questions of a defence than other teams. When they get the wind behind them and the crowd behind them and make breaks from their own 22 it can destabilise a defence and put us under pressure.

“Everything is related, if we don’t bring the energy at the start of the game and they gain confidence and make breaks, our defence naturally doesn’t come up as quick because they’re a bit wary of what the attack are doing. If we make errors then start to question your own confidence and have doubts about how we’ve transferring what we’ve trained at during the week into a performance that’s going to win. At times we regrouped and came back but it wasn’t enough to win.”

It was, in truth, a long way short.