Friday 22 September 2017

Gutsy Scots are forced to pay the penalty by France

France 15 Scotland 8

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw passes the ball
Scotland's Greig Laidlaw passes the ball
France's Uini Atonio catches the ball against Scotland's Blair Cowan and Dougie Fife
Scotland's Mark Bennett hands off France's Remy Lamerat

Eddie Butler at the Stade de France

At the start of the Six Nations, France do not claim to be at their best. Tradition does not allow them to lose, but history shows they can also be a little slow out of the blocks. Against Scotland they have not lost in Paris this century. And they did not lose again.

In avoiding disgrace, they made a statement - of sorts - about bigger and better things to come. No doubt they are right. But Scotland also made a declaration - of bigger and better things to come. For spirit and adventure - and the only try of the game - they were the equal of the home team. Just not on the scoreboard.

As storms go in this age of climactic extremes the French version was not as flattening as some that have blown in Paris and those that have kept intact their record of never having lost an opening home encounter in the Six Nations. It was nearly a big blast, in that the forwards tried to heave a couple of mauls and the backs almost cut through - especially when Wesley Fofana was anywhere near the ball, straightening the line and accelerating - but a reward of three penalties in the first half seemed a little inadequate. Any real danger came from passes slung more in hope than invention, such as the one from Yoann Huget when he thought he was going to be tackled into touch, a bowl over his head that fell charitably for Rory Kockott. Somehow a slung pass does not seem to suggest remaining faithful to a grander French style, and the overall impression was of near to danger of a breakthrough.

That was partly because Scotland largely kept their composure and their shape and absorbed the menace of Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud without buckling. What was more, they were willing to counter with considerable daring. Finn Russell made a couple of half-breaks and the more the French back-row had to keep an eye on the No 10, the more space there was a little wider out for Stuart Hogg.

The full-back had a couple of dazzling runs, the first flatteringly good because he spotted a prop, Rabah Slimani, in front of him and sold him a dummy. It did not quite lead to a try, but soon Hogg was chasing a kick downfield, outstripping everybody tracking back in red.

That didn't produce a try either, but third time lucky, he was involved in Scotland's try. Hogg combined well with Mark Bennett and was through, but not as far as the line. From the ruck, Alex Dunbar went even closer. By now the ball, as the saying goes, was screaming to go wide, where Dougie Fife, on for Tommy Seymour, was waiting. The only danger was that the ball had to go through prop Euan Murray, but the tighthead took and gave with aplomb. The captain, Greig Laidlaw, from the right touchline rapped the post with the conversion, meaning Scotland trailed 9-8 at the break.

France seemed to have a half-time chat every bit as arresting as England's in Cardiff. The forwards had a new edge to their driving, especially when Benjamin Kayser came off the bench. The hooker obviously had not taken kindly to being handed the No16 shirt and set about proving a point. An early penalty in the second half extended France's lead to 12-8 and now the wind was blowing hard in the shape of a series of mauls from far out and from mid-range. France drove and drove and failed to finish the job again. The nearly men.

Even when Johnnie Beattie was sent to the sin-bin for trying to stop the monster illegally, the French pack could not score. The ball had to be given something else to do, and in going wide France nearly - that word again - gifted Tim Visser a runaway try.

Instead, the ball evaded the Scotland wing's fingertips and fell instead to Huget who, without his marker, set off for the line. He cut inside Hogg but was tackled by Bennett, who also managed to rip the ball from his grasp. Another escape for Scotland, part scramble, part brilliance.

With the deficit still standing at four points Scotland had to score a try. They were forced to run from deep on tiring legs. They surrendered possession rarely but made few inroads. France piled the big men into a breakdown and won a penalty. Lopez stretched the lead to seven points and the crowd managed to launch a Marseillaise. But five penalties barely counted as an expression of France at their fluent best. It was a job done, a start, an upset avoided ... but not an awakening. Nothing stirred in Paris on the home front.

Scotland will growl - again - about being fed up with being plucky losers, but there was more to them than grit. They stood firm in the storm and struck back. Hogg was superb. Compare the defeats suffered by themselves and Wales on the opening weekend of the Six Nations and it is Scotland that should be looking forward to the next round more. In a week they face Wales at Murrayfield.

It has a tradition of its own, a romp that sometimes turns into a riot of scoring. If Scotland survive the medical reports - always a big if - they might be in the mood to turn their self-loathing at being good losers into a lust for putting things straight in the record book. They are not out of the running yet. In fact, they look full of it.

Observer

Scorers - France: Lopez 5 pens; Scotland: Fife try, Laidlaw pen.

France: Spedding; Huget, Bastareaud (Lamerat 71), Fofana, Thomas; Lopez, Kockott (Parra 54); Menini (Ben Arous ht), Guirado (Kayser 47), Slimani (Atonio 54), Pape (Taofifenua 60), Maestri, Le Roux, Dusautoir (Goujon 79), Chouly.

Scotland: Hogg; Seymour (Fife 16), Bennett, Dunbar (Horne 67), Visser; Russell, Laidlaw (capt Hidalgo-Clyne 78); Dickinson (Reid 64), Ford (Brown 67), Murray (Cross 64), R Gray (Hamilton 64), J Gray, Harley (Strokosch 52), Cowan (Harley 54-Cowan 61), Beattie.

Referee: N Owens (Wal)

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