France 23 Scotland 27
One of the more unusual, perhaps even bizarre, Six Nations championships ended with Scotland bookending the tournament with away wins over England, for the first time since 1983 and France, for the first time since 1999, and yet still finishing fourth.
From the outset, France played like an inexperienced team distracted by the task of winning by 21 points or more, lacking cohesion and playing individually, even running turnover ball from well inside their 22 on a saturated Parisian night.
Scotland looked both voracious and composed, helped by the simpler equation of simply having to win a Six Nations game. In doing so, they ensured Wales were the champions of the 2021 Six Nations, and from an Irish perspective, at least Scotland didn’t win by eight points and relegate Ireland to a fourth place finish.
All of which merely underlines how tiny and fraught the margins are.
For Scotland, like Ireland, they can reflect on the tournament finishing in a positive light, whereas Les Bleus, despite finishing second, will see this as a missed opportunity to claim a first title since 2010. They are far from the finished article.
All of that said and done, a late red card for Finn Russell and yellow card for Baptiste Serin, two of the least violent players in the game, highlighted the increasing influence of referees, in this instance Wayne Barnes.
The surfeit of knock-ons from early on underlined how difficult it would be for France to score four tries, certainly through their backs and their offloading game.
Route one proved more profitable, Gaël Fickou’s high take above Stuart Hogg, Romain Ntamack’s deft grubber and Damian Penaud’s pressure forced Duhan van der Merwe to concede a five-metre scrum. Cue a penalty, with France opting to take the three through Ntamack.
The Scots responded through their maul, twice going to the corner before Van der Merwe joined the pack’s effort whereupon Wayne Barnes prematurely awarded him the touchdown when recourse to the TMO would have shown a clear double-movement.
When James Ritchie chased Russell’s kick to force a penalty from the hesitant Brice Dulin for not releasing, Finn Russell made it 10-3.
France badly needed Julien Marchand’s typical strength over the ball for a relieving penalty, not to mention in the scrum as well along with Cyril Baille, for their Toulouse teammate Ntamack to make it 10-6.
Half an hour in, under the posts and with momentum, France now turned down the three not once, but twice. Despite conceding six penalties in a row, Scotland escaped lightly to merely concede seven points and no yellows, scrum pressure and Dupont’s long pass enabling Penaud to set up Dulin on his inside.
Ntamack landed the touchline conversion.
Fickou’s chase and strength, and Charles Ollivon’s link with Gregory Alldritt from the turnover, led to Stuart Hogg pushing his team’s luck on a warning when going off his feet to concede his team’s 11th penalty of the half and was duly binned.
That said a superb lineout steal at the tail by Nick Haining kept Scotland afloat at the break. It felt huge.
Upon the resumption, this was compounded by a soft penalty against Fickou for the mildest of neck rolls on Van der Merwe, which even stunned the Scottish winger. And then France struck, like nobody except perhaps the All Blacks can score.
Dulin marked in his own 22 and set off quickly, Ntamack providing the link with Arthur Vincent. From the recycle, Dupont going wide right, Virimi Vakatawa made an outrageous offload to Penaud, who chipped Russell and despite Ali Price’s tackle off the ball, completed the grounding. If he hadn’t, it would have been a penalty try, and Ntamack missed the conversion, which seemed perverse.
A Russell penalty soon made it a one-score game and kept Scotland interested.
What’s more, after a brilliant Penaud counter-attack, Dupont’s chip from Fickou’s blindside call killed a French attack. Instead, Scotland came calling, thrice turning down three-pointers, before Dave Cherry scored off a maul and Russell’s conversion inched them in front.
An unusually untroubled close-range finish by Swan Rebbadj after a wonderful pick-up by Alldritt rewarded pressure by the French pack and put France back in front but Ntamack, who looked m ore rattled than most French players by the night’s equation, missed another kickable conversion.
Scotland came looking for a win, but all hope of that was ended when Russell, curiously a low-key presence until now, was red-carded for catching Dulin in the neck with a fend, even though it could be argued that the French fullback went too high.
Russell apologised. Dulin didn’t look remotely in pain.
In any case, the teams were levelled out when Baptiste Serin was ridiculously yellow carded for the slightest of side entries, as a consequence of “beaucoup des penalties” according to the now dominant figure of Barnes.
Scotland pummelled the French line for a match-winning try, as two exhausted sides threw themselves into contact, Van der Merwe earning a Braveheart win with a finish after 20 phases wide out from Adam Hastings’ skip pass.
Hastings even landed the touchline conversion as France finished up well short in the final analysis. For Scotland too, pretty much like everyone else bar Italy, it will be a tournament of what might have been.
France might reasonably reflect on how breaches of their own bubble also stymied their momentum.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Ntamack pen 3-0; 14 mins van der Merwe try, Russell con 3-7; 19 mins Russell pen 3-10; 28 mins Ntamack pen 6-10; 36 mins Dulin try, Ntamack con 13-10; (half-time 13-10); 47 mins Penaud try 18-10; 53 mins Russell pen 18-13; 61 mins Cherry try, Russell con 18-20; 66 mins Rebbadj try 23-20; 85 mins van der Merwe try, Hastings con 23-27.
France: Brice Dulin (La Rochelle); Damian Penaud (Clermont), Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92), Arthur Vincent (Montpellier), Gaël Fickou (Stade Francais); Romain Ntamack (Toulouse), Antoine Dupont (Toulouse); Cyril Baille (Toulouse), Julien Marchand (Toulouse), Mohamed Haouas (Montpellier, Bernard Le Roux (Raicng 92), Swan Rebbadj (Toulon), Anthony Jelonch (Castres), Charles Ollivon (Toulon, capt), Gregory Alldritt (La Rochelle). Replacements: Romain Taofifenua (Toulon) for le Roux (50 mins), Camille Chat (Racing 92 for Marchand, Jean-Baptiste Gros (Toulon) for Baille (both 56 mins), Uini Atonio (La Rochelle) for Haouas, Teddy Thomas (Racing 92) for Vakatawa (both 61 mins), Dylan Cretin (Lyon) for Jelonch (63 mins), Baptiste Serin (Toulon) for Dupon (71 mins). Not used - Anthony Bouthier (Montpellier). Sinbinned - Serin (73 mins).
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (Exeter, capt); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), George Turner (Glasgow), Zander Fagerson (Glaagow), Sam Skinner (Exeter), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Nick Haining (Edinburgh). Replacements: Oli Kebble (Glasgow) for Sutherland (49 mins), Dave Cherry (Edinburgh) for Turner (59 mins), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh) for Fagerson (63 mins), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) for Haining, Huw Jones (Glasgow) for Graham (both 67 mins), Adam Hastings (Edinburgh) for Johnson (73 mins), Alex Craig (Gloucester) for Skinner (75 mins). Not used - Scott Steele (Harlequins). Sinbinned: Hogg (39-49 mins), Red card: Russell (71 mins).