A bruising bone-shaker of a Test match went France’s way in the end, but Scotland will be reflecting on an opportunity missed as they battled tooth and nail to manoeuvre themselves into a winning position only to allow the match to slip away. For the second successive time in the Six Nations at the Stade de France, Scotland won the try count, this time through Stuart Hogg and Tim Swinson, but errors crept in and it was not to be and France got home courtesy of a Gael Fickou try and the boot of stand-off Camille Lopez.
Finn Russell’s missed conversion from just five yards out encapsulated an afternoon in which the visitors lost skipper Greig Laidlaw to an early injury, with his vice-captain John Barclay also limping off to leave Jonny Gray in charge.
The match began in nervy and frantic fashion with both sides guilty of errors. Scotland conceded a turnover in the first minute and also knocked on, while France twice almost provided the visitors with intercept chances.
First Allan Dell pounced on some French slackness at the ruck and popped up to Sean Maitland who attacked from deep in his own half, but Spedding was back to cover. Huw Jones then came within a whisker of snaffling a loose pass but it just evaded his grasp.
The first points came in the seventh minute when the Scots infringed nearly 40 metres out and Lopez stroked the penalty over to open the scoring.
Scotland hit back well as they turned their hosts over on the 22 and won a scrum. It was the first set-piece test against the mammoth home pack and they were immediately under pressure as the drive came and disrupted the Scots into a knock-on as the ball came out the back, with the subsequent French put-in followed by a front-row collapse and free kick.
As the first quarter progressed, Scotland began to settle and, for the first time, managed to construct a sustained set of phases which methodically probed the defensive line for weakness.
With a penalty coming for offside, they found it as the ball went wide and Jones fed Hogg, who had Hamish Watson outside him but didn’t need him as he burst over in the right-hand corner.
The testing touchline conversion proved beyond even the excellence of Laidlaw as he had his first failure off the tee in the tournament so far as the ball clipped the crossbar and back out.
The lead didn’t last long, though, as Lopez was successful with a penalty in a similar spot to his first and made it 6-5. Laidlaw limped off hurt and his replacement Alistair Price didn’t take long to make an impact, though not in the way he would have liked, as a shove on Lopez just after the French had been penalised for crossing led to the penalty being reversed.
The two sets of players squared off for a heated few minutes before, with calm restored, Lopez’s penalty struck the post. The loss of three points was soon offset by a gain of seven for the hosts, however, as they launched their most dangerous period of attack and it was finally finished by centre Fickou, who breached Hogg’s defences in the corner and Lopez converted magnificently from the touchline.
The Scots pegged three points back immediately as they won a penalty after winning the restart, with Russell successfully assuming the place-kicking responsibilities.
John Hardie was on for Barclay as the half reached its closing five minutes and the Scots won another penalty thanks to good work at the breakdown and Russell made no mistake from 40 metres to bring the visitors within two points at the interval.
Shortly after the restart Hardie became the latest Scots casualty to leave the fray as lock Swinson was utilised off the bench in the back row for a second successive week.
And, within minutes, the replacement forward was surging over under the posts for an extraordinary Scotland try during a bizarre couple of minutes that captured the dizzying unpredictability that stand-off Russell, pictured left, brings to the game.
Not long after almost coming a cropper with a loose kick, it was his brilliant back-of-the-hand pass to Seymour which led to the wing profiting from a helpful bounce and collecting his own kick ahead before feeding Swinson, who was in perfect support to score.
Russell’s crazy few minutes continued as he contrived to fluff the simplest of conversions, possibly under pressure to take quickly and take the TMO out of the equation.
He he snatched at the ball as it began to topple off the tee and put it embarrassingly under the bar. That allowed Lopez to wipe out the lead immediately as his penalty levelled things up at 16-16.
Hogg’s crack at a monster effort from just inside the Scotland half had the legs but not the accuracy as the match entered what you felt was its decisive stage.
The forward exchanges remained as ferocious as had been predicted as both sides strained every sinew to take control. Josh Strauss was impressive for the Scots with some heroic carrying but it was a struggle to gain any purchase from the mighty home pack, who continued to dominate the scrum and bully their way up the park.
They had their prey pinned on their line for an almost unbearable period when the French spurned shots at goal as they sensed they could barge their way through but were met with admirable defence. When centre Remi Lamerat knocked on over the line and a scrum penalty went Scotland’s way it felt like a turning point as the clock ticked past 70 minutes.
However, a clumsy penalty was conceded soon after and Lopez booted the French ahead before repeating the trick a few minutes later as the game slipped away.