Vern Cotter’s Scotland beat France to finally take big scalp
Result at Murrayfield gives England their first Six Nations championship since 2011
Stuart Hogg and Greig Laidlaw celebrate Scotland’s Six Nations win over France. Photograph: Getty
Scotland 29 France 19
Now we can say at last that Scotland are starting to make progress. Not more than one step, but progress nevertheless. After their righting of the ship with victory in Italy, here was a win of confidence against a side ranked higher than them. Let’s not pretend that France are much more than the rabble we have become used to in recent times, but they are dangerous when, as here, they play as if they couldn’t care less.
Indeed, Scotland were subjected to a few of the kind of challenges they might not have risen to in the past. They lost Finn Russell, their fly-half, to concussion in the fifth minute and in the same passage of play conceded the game’s first try. Yes, the Scotland of recent times might well have imploded. Instead, they regrouped and came again, with calm assurance. And so the wooden spoon this year will go to Italy, a palpable relief to the Scots, which will in no way be diminished by the knowledge that with this win they have also secured the championship for their dear old friends the English. How they celebrated at the end.
Over to France to deny them the grand slam. England will note the happiness to play from anywhere, but also a lack of intensity and precision that will not worry them in the slightest. They scored two fine tries in the first half, but at the points of key pressure – attacking lineouts and restarts (where Italy had caused Scotland so much trouble in the last round) – they were insipid.
For all that we have lost faith in the French rugby team, though, they remain top of the offload charts this Six Nations – and the second is daylight. They clearly felt they would find more joy against the Scottish defence with such a tactic than they did against Wales’s in the last round. Cue Scotland’s trials at the start of the match. Russell was knocked out as he joined the tackling exercise France set them with a blur of offloads and angles in the first few minutes. As he was being tended to, Guilhem Guirado combined with his wingers, as if he were one himself, and he stepped the last man for a second try in a few match minutes, having dotted down at the end of the match against Wales.
This was the sort of trial Scotland might have failed to rise to in the not-too-distant past. The way they reacted was impressive. Francois Trinh-Duc missed the conversion and another simple penalty, which certainly helped, as did the French handling, which was not up to their ambition. That all helped, but more significant was the Scottish response. They didn’t try to match the French devilry, keeping ball-in-hand to a minimum in their first half. By the start of the second quarter, two Laidlaw penalties, one at a scrum, where Scotland held an edge, had overturned the early deficit, before they struck with confidently wrought try.
Duncan Taylor has been one of the successes of Scotland’s championship, here moving a step out to outside centre, where his muscularity found expression. His half-break was the first dent in the French defence, which was later deepened by the break of Peter Horne, looking assured as stand-in stand-off in Russell’s absence. Taylor was on hand next phase to hammer to within a yard or two, and Laidlaw found Stuart Hogg, who stepped inside to the line.
Now Murrayfield was rocking, all the more so three minutes later, just four before the break, when Taylor took a penalty quickly, beat Virimi Vakatawa and galloped down the right for a try from 60 metres. Laidlaw’s tug on the chasing Wenceslas Lauret was immaterial, even if he was lucky to get away with it. Then again, it was the sort of streetwise intervention that some might say the Scots have lacked in their recent history of honest heroism in defeat. A scoreline of 18-5 looked much better than that.
Alas, they could not hold out until half-time. France sent a penalty to the 22 and drove the lineout. When that was stopped they swung it through phases left then right, until Gaël Fickou, a deadly finisher in the finest of French tradition, found the space to beat Taylor to the line on the stroke of half-time.
The Scotland scrum won another penalty shortly after the resumption, which Hogg converted from 55 metres, but that was when the tide started to turn more clearly. The next scrum, despite a noticeable nudge from the home side, saw a penalty awarded to France. From the position secured, they chipped away at the lead, when Ross Ford came in at the side of an unthreatening ruck to concede a penalty. Then, having repelled a couple of driven lineouts deep in their 22, Scotland conceded another soft one, when France dropped the ball backwards 40 metres out from danger, and Alex Dunbar was driven off his feet for a harsh penalty.
Suddenly, Scotland’s lead had been whittled down to three. Again, it was a challenge Scotland might not have risen to in the not-too-distant. Here, they responded decisively in the final quarter. When they sent a penalty to the 22, the standard ploy would have been to set and drive. Instead, they tapped it off the top, and Horne was haring to the France 22, then Richie Gray to the five-metre line and then WP Nel to a couple of yards. Laidlaw whipped it from there to Hogg, who tapped it on over his head, to Tim Visser. The winger had a free run to the line. Scotland had the match under control again. Now at last, under Vern Cotter, they can start to look ahead and not over their shoulders.
Scotland: Hogg; Seymour, Taylor, Dunbar, Visser; Russell (Horne 6), Laidlaw (capt); Dickinson, Ford (McInally 68), Nel (Low 73), R Gray (Swinson 78), J Gray, Barclay, Hardie, Strauss (Wilson 62)
Tries: Hogg, Taylor, Visser Con Laidlaw Pens Laidlaw 3, Hogg
France: Spedding; Fofana, Fickou, Mermoz (Medard 69), Vakatawa; Trinh-Duc (Plisson 69), Machenaud (Bezy 75); Poirot (Atonio 62), Guirado (Chat 70), Slimani (Vincent Pelo 62; Poirot 65), Flanquart (Vahaamahina 52), Maestri, Lauret, Camara (Goujon 65), Chouly
Tries: Guirado, Fickou Con Machenaud Pens Machenaud 2
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)