On the face of it fourth place does not seem a great return after the promise of the first weekend. But for that rueful performance in the second half against Wales Scotland could have finished as champions. Not since the expansion of the Six Nations 21 years ago can Scotland look at the final table and think that the top is a much more realistic proposition than the bottom.
The build-up to the France game was dominated by the debate around whether Scotland’s English-based players would be released for a match that had been rearranged for outside the international window.
I spoke to Hoggy and a couple of others through the week and I think they have felt very frustrated and let down by the Six Nations and I’m sure this added to their motivation in Paris on Friday night. Scotland have been excellent with their protocols throughout the championship and during the Autumn Nations Cup, and a huge amount of credit has to go to the medics, the management and the players for the exemplary work.
To have the game postponed due to coronavirus cases in the France squad after several breaches of Covid protocols in the French camp was disappointing, to then be unable to pick from a fully available squad of players as a result was scandalous.
I think the players felt really quite let down by the Six Nations and I know they went to Paris with the mindset that it was not just about the starting 15 or the 23 in the squad but the ones who have contributed throughout the whole tournament. The likes of Sean Maitland and Jamie Bhatti missed out, not even given the opportunity to put their hands up for selection, and I think those guys were very much in the players’ thoughts in the build-up to kick off on Friday.
It was a massive squad effort throughout the whole tournament. They’ve been locked away for ten weeks, much longer than normal. Usually during the Six Nations you get to go home for a couple of days. So to be away for that length of time and then for some to be denied that final week together to build towards a huge game would have been tough for those who missed out.
A massive thing for this group is that they have managed to break three big-away day hoodoos: Wales in the autumn, then Twickenham and Paris in this year’s Six Nations.
The criticism of Scotland for so long has been that they’ve not been able to put performances together away from home. They certainly did that this year.
BT Murrayfield has been a fortress for Scotland in recent years and fans definitely play a huge part in games. Scotland don’t tend to lose games at home when they’ve got 60,000 screaming their support. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we are getting different results this season.
France would probably say that if they’d had 85,000 to 90,000 in the Stade de France on Friday then they wouldn’t have given up their lead in the last five minutes. But you can only play in the environment you find yourself in and I thought Scotland dealt with it really well, particularly away from home.
It is something they would have talked about a lot - how do you deal with that lack of atmosphere and the away day mentality when you have to create your own energy. The guys who aren’t playing have a big role to play because they can help generate a buzz during warm-ups and throughout the game.
Teams are being criticised for being over-enthusiastic in the way they celebrate little victories or opposition mistakes on the pitch. It can be frustrating to watch at times, and even more infuriating to be on the receiving end on the pitch, but they are simply trying to generate some energy and atmosphere within their own team because it’s so difficult without fans.
You could see just how much it meant to all the Scotland boys every time they got a little victory on Friday night.
The winning try came in that crucial period when the clock was showing the 80 minutes were up and I thought that spell was a perfect blueprint for how Scotland want to play.
At times in the past, we’ve perhaps been caught between a rock and a hard place.
On one hand we’ve been wanting to play a really fast brand of rugby, which we can do, but if you get sucked into that too much you become loose, you turn ball over and you get hit on the counter.
On the other hand, if you try to play a power game and you do that against the likes of England, Ireland and South Africa, more often than not you’re not going to win.
For Scotland, it’s about trying to find that balance between playing powerfully but also moving the ball quickly and playing at a high tempo. And I thought they did that really well in Paris, particularly in those last five minutes.
They were powerful and aggressive up front, they carried hard and the breakdown was much, much cleaner than it’s been, generating quick ball. And then when they had the opportunity to generate a little bit of tempo they did that, through Adam Hastings’ long pass to Duhan van der Merwe for the winning try.
Adam has had a difficult return from injury and has struggled a little bit to get back into the groove, so to come off the bench against France and have the confidence to put in a pass like that over the top to Duhan shows how much faith he had in the system and his own abilities.
The Scotland players believed that if they kept the ball, kept going through the phases and recycling, they would have the ability to execute when they had the opportunity. Scotland showed a maturity and discipline in that last five minutes that has been threatening to burst through for some time. Let’s hope that this a sign of what’s to come.