Scotland finished the Six Nations by offering a glimpse of what they might achieve if all the separate cogs ever mesh together as they were designed to do.
Scorers: France: Tries: Fofana, Medard. Cons: Michalak, Machenaud. Pens: Michalak 3; Scotland: Try: Visser. Con: Jackson. Pens: Laidlaw 3.
They did not win the match but they played a full part in an engrossing game and led until early in the second half. The first French try did not come until the final quarter but was quicky followed by a second that proved the difference between the sides.
After seven matches in the tournament without a win, France finally registered a victory, although it wasn’t big enough to drag them off the bottom of the table. The Scots finished in third place despite winning just two from five, half a victory more than France managed. It’s tight below the top two.
Against the brute physicality of the French, the Scots rose to the challenge and played some very decent rugby that was peppered with too many mistakes. They spent long periods of this match, as they have every other, in desperate defence but they also showed an ability and willingness to run the ball at the French defence and, on another day when those final passes stick, they might have had more than just the consolation try from Tim Visser.
Scotland landed the first telling blows with Greig Laidlaw kicking two early penalties that proved the only points of the first half. The scrum-half was the most influential man on the park, followed by Mathieu Bastareaud who had a hand in both French tries.
Laidlaw repeatedly pegged the French back into one particular corner with a series of teasing kicks. There are better athletes around but few players can match the Borderer’s understanding of the game, which he displayed to perfection in Paris.
The match was blighted by constant drizzle that made handling a lottery and turnovers rife. In just one example, Johnnie Beattie spilled a kick-off into touch but Jim Hamilton stole the lineout then the Scots were turned over at the ruck.
Twenty minutes into the match Stuart Hogg knocked the ball forward while attempting to keep a French penalty kick from going into touch. It proved a costly mistake because the Scots were then caught on their own goal line for the next eight agonising minutes as France attempted to bully their way over the whitewash with a long series of set scrums and rucks. The Scots’ scrum creaked but did not crack and, when the French twice muscled the ball over the line, they failed to ground it. It was backs-to-the-wall stuff but the thin blue line was finally rewarded when referee Nigel Owens signalled a Scotland penalty.
Minutes later the Scots were back were they had started after some extraordinary footballing skills from winger Vincent Clerc. Stand-off Freddie Michalak chipped the ball to his winger who, understanding that he’d be tackled into touch, simply volleyed it back infield where centre Wesley Fofana caught it on the full. Only a last-gasp tackle prevented the French centre from scoring.
Scotland had survived the worst of the onslaught, or so they thought, and grew in confidence as the first half progressed until Hogg had the audacity to attempt a 50-yard drop goal. Laidlaw kept turning the French defence and Jim Hamilton was bossing the sidelines like a Mafia Don. The Scots stole at three or four French throws, and they needed to.
When half-time arrived, the French players ran to the dressing room staring at a 6-0 deficit and with the sound of whistling coming from the agitated French crowd.
It was going to happen at some point and France finally hit their straps in the second half, starting with three quickfire penalties from Michalak between 46 and 53 minutes as the relentless pressure took its toll. France had the lead but Michalak’s next intervention was not so clever as the stand-off spilled the ball and it was picked up by a colleague in an offside position. Laidlaw dragged Scotland level with his third penalty.
It proved a brief respite from the French onslaught, which continued unabated with replacement prop Vincent Debaty twice barrelling up the left touchline only to be felled by Hogg, who was like some latterday David against the French Goliath.
So it was all the more galling that the Scotland full-back missed his man when Fofana skipped up the right touchline and somehow evaded Hogg’s despairing dive on 65 minutes. He was followed over the line four minutes later by winger Maxime Medard after Bastareaud did the initial damage up the middle.
There was still time for Matt Scott to make a sublime break and enjoy a long canter before the centre put Tim Visser under the French sticks to extend the Dutchman’s excellent scoring record. It was some small consolation for all the Scots efforts.
France: Huget, Clerc, Bastareaud, Fofana, Medard; Michalak, Parra (Machenaud 40 min); Domingo (Debaty 53 min), Kayser (Guirado 53 min), Mas, Vahaamahina, Maestri, Classen, Dusautoir (Nyanga 63 min), Picamoles.
Scotland: Hogg, Maitland (Evans 30 min), Lamont, Scott, Visser; Weir (Jackosn 66 min), Laidlaw; Grant, Ford, Murray (Cross 66 min), Gilchrist (Kellock 53 min), Hamilton, Strokosch, Brown, Beattie (Wilson 70 min).