Aidan Smith: Usual suspects inspire Scotland’s win over France

So kids might have got in cheap but what a marketing triumph to have sold out Murrayfield on a sun-soaked afternoon with the Edinburgh Festival building to a crescendo amid other summery attractions.

Hamish Watson makes a break during Scotlands victory over France  at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS/SRU.
Hamish Watson makes a break during Scotlands victory over France at BT Murrayfield. Picture: SNS/SRU.

More crucially, could Scotland deliver a triumph of their own? Now, triumph might sound too strong a term because warm-ups by their very nature can’t really rise to such heights, But factored into the equation had to be how dismal the Dark Blues were in Nice.

Nice wasn’t nice and this would have to be better. Warm-ups can be talked down, dismissed as non-critical, but that’s much easier to pull off when the games are won.

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Lose the first of your four World Cup preps – and lose it lousily, as happened last weekend – and next time out you really need not only a purring performance but a positive result.

Another defeat, another poor showing, and PR spin-passing your way out of a tight corner becomes trickier. So what are we to make of yesterday’s victory in the rematch with France, a game full of endeavour and error, fumble and flair? It told us that Scotland simply cannot do without the usual suspects – Finn Russell, pictured, Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw and man-of-the-match Hamish Watson – but I think we knew that already.

Just the briefest glance at the names in the visitors’ line-up had invited some foreboding. Sure, there was a classically-French Dupont but then we spotted Guitoune (sounded like guillotine) and Raka (sounded like rake, ie with studs, harshly) and Ollivon (sounded like oblivion, where Scotland didn’t want to be heading). There was a Poirot, too, but ultimately no great mystery about how Les Bleus would play: power and panache, and the latter was evident right away.

In Nice Scotland gave up a try after one minute and 36 seconds. Yesterday they lasted a bit longer – 14 seconds, to be precise. On halfway Peter Horne’s attempted pass was intercepted by Damian Penaud who raced away to score.

Only Hogg had survived the nadir of Nice but this encounter was always going to feature a XV closer to the World Cup starting line-up and most certainly involve Russell although not much came off for the trickster at ten in the early phases and one popped pass was almost snaffled by smooth-operating opponents whose backs were zippy and, almost breaking with tradition, no forward was a monster truck.

Just how zippy was demonstrated midway through the first half. Penaud had narrowly failed to reach a diagonal punt from Camille Lopez, the France stand-off trying to match Russell’s inventiveness with the boot, but the winger had a simpler job of finishing off a barrelling break by Gael Fickou to notch his second try.

Not much fancied by the bookies, France were looking like chevaux noire for the World Cup. We were admiring the French but that wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. Russell, who plays in France, wasn’t admiring them but continuing to dance and dink and totally trust himself to spot an opportunity and finally just before half-time one came. Surges by substitute Blair Kinghorn and Hogg put Scotland in a highly promising position but the ball would have to be swung out wide. Russell was the man for this, involving himself twice, the second time skipping over two prostrate bodies to fling a pass to Sean Maitland who touched down to a lusty roar from the shirt-sleeved crowd in shades.

It had been an itchy, scratchy performance by Scotland up until that point, with some rustiness still evident, but Watson was giving his usual impression of a child’s toy which cannot be knocked over, at least never by the first Frenchman to try to stand in his way, and after the break the home side began to get in the groove and find some form.

At half-time kids in the stands were invited to play a game flashed up on the big screens called Spin and Win. Finn and Win always looked like Scotland’s best chance of making amends for Nice and the playmaker leaped high to catch a rare, squiffy pass from Laidlaw and set up Kinghorn with a punt but the winger didn’t seem to think he had the legs for the break.

Minutes later he absolutely proved he did, covering almost the length of the pitch in a few Gigantor strides, forcing a penalty near the French line. Scotland went for the lineout but made a derriere de cheval of it. This sequence kind of summed up yesterday’s performance: good, good good – woops. There was more good to come, though, when Laidlaw – who scored with all his kicks including a cracker from the touchline to convert Maitland’s try – delayed a pass perfectly for Chris Harris to blur through the last of the French defence and touch down between the posts.

Scotland had got their win. Who said warm-ups weren’t important?