Result disappointing, performance good in parts, consequences worrying. That briefly sums up Sunday’s match at the Stade de France. The result was disappointing because we knew we could win, came close to doing so, but couldn’t bring it off. The performance was good in parts because for much of the match we were the better team, but overall revealed, or confirmed, an important weakness.
As for the consequences, the loss of Greig Laidlaw for the rest of the tournament changes the balance of the team, deprives it of its leader, while the head knocks suffered by Alex Dunbar, John Barclay and John Hardie disrupt preparation for the Welsh match and may make their participation doubtful. And now we are also missing Josh Strauss with a kidney injury.
The number of injuries should stiffen SRU opposition to the already ridiculous proposal to compress the tournament into five weeks.
Laidlaw’s absence raises a question about how we play. He is a canny game-manager. In this respect the like-for-like replacement would be Henry Pyrgos, whose game management has been praised by Gregor Townsend. On the other hand, he has recently returned from a longish injury absence and had a poor match for Glasgow against the Scarlets last weekend. Ali Price who came on for Laidlaw plays in a different, more aggressive style. I thought he did pretty well in Paris. I wouldn’t hold the reversal of a penalty awarded to Scotland against him. He gave only a gentle push to a French player who was refusing to hand over the ball, and one has often see other scrum-halves – Conor Murray, Morgan Parra, Ben Youngs, for example – do much the same with impunity. I think he should start against Wales – and deserves the chance to do so.
We scored two tries to one, and might well have had a couple of others. Alex Dunbar all but brought off a midfield interception which would have put him clear. Sean Maitland would, I think, have scored when Greig Laidlaw put him in space on the left touchline if he had kicked ahead, rather than turning in and looking for support. However, we seemed less and less likely to score another try the longer the match went on as we lost forward momentum.
The French won the match because they overpowered us in the set scrum. They might have done so even if Willem Nel and Alasdair Dickinson had been playing. As it was, our starting props and their replacements are all inexperienced at this level; it showed and they suffered. The French pack repeatedly drove us back and won a succession of penalties. Its dominance was such that any Scottish knock-on or failure to ground the ball in the tackle and recycle it cost us a lot of field position.We had hoped to tire the massive French forwards by making them run about the field. Their scrum supremacy allowed them to stroll gently to the next line-out.
They played the laws as they are, and there’s no use complaining. As long the laws permit the scrum to be seen as a way of winning a penalty rather than supplying the backs with ball, this is how a team enjoying supremacy up front will play the game. They would be foolish to do otherwise.
The French superiority at the scrum was such that there was really no need for their very talented young scrum- half, Baptiste Serin, to put the ball directly into their second row. But no sensible scrum-half is going to observe the requirement to put the ball in straight, to the middle of the tunnel when he knows that referees have no intention of enforcing the law. It’s like parking on a double yellow line, something any motorist would do if there was no penalty for doing so.
The French not only overpowered us; in the end they out-thought us. So they deserved their victory, one which they almost certainly needed more urgently than we did. I should add, however, that in an exchange of emails a French rugby journalist generously told me he wasn’t at all sure they had deserved to win. So perhaps a draw might have been a fair result. Certainly it was close, as indeed all the matches except, sadly, those involving Italy, have been in the first two weekends of this enthralling tournament.
Finn Russell’s kicking-tee misfortune prompts me to reflect on what a waste of time the use of the kicking-tee is, requiring as it does someone to bring it on along with the apparently obligatory bottle of water for the kicker to take a swig before he prepares to kick. The Sevens game got rid of place-kicks years ago. Is there any good reason why the 15-a-side shouldn’t do this too, and require all attempts at goal to be taken by a drop-kick? Kickers are apparently given 90 seconds to make their kick. Ten place- kicks at goal may therefore eat up 15 minutes of playing time – that is, 15 out of the 80 a match lasts. It sounds absurd. Perhaps it is absurd.