Six Nations: French musketeers ruthless with the rapier against blunt Scotland

To get back in the groove, to reassert their championship credentials, Stuart Hogg and his men must surely have been hoping for a slightly less daunting task than what some call the world champs elect led by the best player on the planet.

Darcy Graham was brave for the Scots but couldn't get a run with the ball
Darcy Graham was brave for the Scots but couldn't get a run with the ball

Couldn’t we have Italy next? An opportunity to feel better about ourselves after the almighty Cardiff let-down by running in a bunch of tries against the Six Nations makeweights?

No, France it would be and Antoine Dupont it would be. Formi-bloody-dable.

It didn’t seem fair. France already have the best anthem in the Six Nations and now they have a stirring team to go with the stirring Marseillaise with its “Marchant! Marchant! … ” finale.

Man of the match Antoine Dupont smothers scrum-half rival Ali Price.

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And Les Bleus weren’t walking in the opening kerfuffles as Scotland had to cope with Dupont – and not just the scrum-half but his no-slouch buddy at ten, Romain Ntamack – minus Hamish Watson, top man in the previous tournament and felled by Covid.

But, being talked up as Slam contenders, never mind the next World Cup, there seemed to be a few nerves in the Gallic ranks – either that or it was the swirling wind round Murrayfield which mucked up Ntamack’s kickoff and Melvyn Jaminet’s straightforward penalty – the 27th of the competition conceded by Scotland, confirming our place at the top of that table, and too many more would follow.

But there was fumbling from the Scots as well with Finn Russell having a kick charged down and then dropping an Ali Price pass, although on closer inspection the delivery had been not quite spot-on, establishing another unfortunate trend for the Scots.

Some in the stands might have been pinning their hopes on the ancient theory that France don’t always travel well on that epic journey from Paris to Edimbourg. But surely that reasoning is outworn now, and clinging to it was about as futile as hoping that the French might have ditched “La Marseillaise” for “Monsieur Dupont”, cheesy 1960s Europop glorifying their main man.

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Skipper Stuart Hogg is foiled on the line by Melvyn Jaminet.

Dupont, though, doesn’t have that kind of vanity. “He’s humble,” ex-Scotland scrum-half Bryan Redpath told me beforehand. “He’s phenomenal at breaking tackles for a guy only 5ft 8ins and he’s improved his game this year with his kicking off the left foot.” But offering some hope to the Dark Blues, Redpath added: “He can have bad matches, and has done for his club Toulouse this season, because everyone’s gunning for him now.”

Well, he would be man of the match here, with the first eye-catching moments including a spot of basketball-style interplay with Toulouse club-mate Ntamack and the sacking of a much bigger Scottish opponent. And then there was France’s opening try.

Russell sent a kick down the middle – a poor one – but there seemed no imminent danger when Dupont gathered in his own 22. Then he sped off on a fantastic weaving run and, as Redpath remarked, when the tackles eventually came he broke them. A line in the ditty bearing his name mentions “oh so gentle continental ways”. This definitely wasn’t le petit general, Paul Willemse touching down for the score.

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Scotland’s player of the Six Nations thus far has been Darcy Graham. The wee man effected two stunningly brave takes, one under the high ball, but Scotland couldn’t set him up for a gallop with it. On the other flank it was the same story for Duhan van der Merwe.

France, though, are not a one-man or two-man team. Witness Cyril Baille’s strength, obviously, but also his ball-playing skills. With five Scots around him the beefy prop should never have got that pass away for Yoram Moefana’s try but he did.

Scotland without Watson – and Jamie Ritchie, injured on the opening weekend – weren’t their usual ferocious selves in the loose. Rory Darge, making his first start, was throwing himself around with purpose, though, and he plunged for the try which got the home side back in the contest after Price had gone close following a penalty given away by Jaminet who flew into Sam Skinner as the second row jumped.

And Scotland could have led bang on the interval if pass accuracy hadn’t let them down. Skinner had earlier failed to find Van der Merwe in a threatening position, the delivery just behind the winger, but then with the try line spread out invitingly on the same left flank Chris Harris couldn’t set up Hogg. France went right back upfield and a sensational diagonal run by Gael Fickou brought them their third try.

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We wondered if the match had already turned on that moment, but the flamboyant manner in which France romped to three more scores in the second half suggested the outcome was never really in any doubt.

Certainly Scotland needed a try immediately after the restart but when Price was robbed close to the French line the musketeers in Les Bleus’ back division were ruthless with the rapier, Jonathan Danty diving over, and then Damian Penaud helped himself to a double.

It had become a dispiriting afternoon for the Scotland and the France-based Russell, who’d been hoping to turn it on against guys he plays every week, cut a grumpy figure as he trooped off with still 20 minutes remaining.

His replacement Blair Kinghorn set up Van der Merwe to make the scoreboard a little more respectable, but by then Murrayfield had acknowledged their favourites had been well beaten by a great team and potentially a world-beating one. Then Dupont and his fellow monsieurs left the field to another rousing rendition of their wonderful anthem.

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