Scotland kept the world's best player quiet but the France game slipped from our hands
This was going to go one of two ways. Either Scotland’s rugby team would embrace the new and hail a visionary concept - or, like the football team after their failures last week, they’d conclude in a huff that any competition with “Nations” in the title really isn’t worth bothering about.
In the round-ball game, in the Nations League, those in dark blue seem destined to be stuck in a lift forever with Israel. At least in the Autumn Nations Cup yesterday, victory over a side they’d already defeated this year would send Gregor Townsend’s men quickly into the final.
Ah, but this was France who at any time in history you might beat one day only for them to come back and wallop you demain.
Moreover, this France are working hard to become less eccentrically erratic. Moreover, this France could point to mitigating circumstances for the reverse back in March when they were forced to play for 44 minutes with 14 men.
After the game with the haymaker - Mohamed Haouas being red-carded for socking Jamie Ritchie - we’d been looking forward to the game with the playmakers: a high-quality, flair-stuffed 10s duel between Finn Russell and Romain Ntamack, only for both to be ruled out by injury.
It still, though, offered up an intriguing contest for a raw afternoon: how would Antoine Dupont, the best scrum-half in the world, fare against Ritchie and Hamish Watson, two terriers hoping to become Lions?
The form team in world rugby, France came roaring into the game, and despite Watson - still rocking the grizzled beach-bum look - getting strong hands on Dupont in one of Les Bleus’ first charges, and then the same player halting an electric break from Vincent Rattez, they popped the first points onto the board.
Dupont - not just the finest 9 but the finest player on the planet, full stop, argue some - nevertheless put in his poorest performance of 2020 at Murrayfield eight months ago. If that was at least partly down to Ntamack going off hurt after just eight minutes then maybe the Scotland breakaways’ chances of coming out on top had been improved.
Ntamack’s replacement, Matthieu Jailbert, mishandled a high punt but immediately redeemed himself with a clearing kick. France were in pretty much total control but then, under pressure from Scotland with Ritchie prominent, they gave away a couple of penalties of their own, Duncan Weir bringing the scores level.
Dupont is mortal. A loose pass from the celebrated scrum-half might have put other teams in trouble but Thomas Ramos, France’s goalkicker for the day, was nonchalant as he retrieved the ball from the floor and got up a great head of steam. This set up his team for a Jailbert drop-goal, and the whole episode seemed to sum up French character, but so did the next example of their occasional indiscipline and Weir scudded his third penalty.
The third-choice stand-off - but outstanding winner of the Lockdown Haircut of the Year (Sport) - was keeping Scotland level with his boot. The fourth of his first-half penalties was from 42 metres and seemed to be on the outer reaches of his stumpy wee legs, but over it went.
The game had been tight, tense, cagey, edgy and then, when the rain came, slippery. Defences were on top, it was kick-for-kick and wingers were chronically underused, Blair Kinghorn having plenty of time to cultivate his Movember moustache.
But, right after the restart, we finally saw a player open his legs and show his class. Unfortunately it was the formidable Virimi Vakatawa who thundered onto a pass from Rattez and shrugged off Stuart Hogg’s desperate attempt to stop him on the line as if the Scotland captain was a pesky fly.
It was, if you were French, an exciting moment, the first of the match, and one deserving of the widest-possible audience. A jam-packed Murrayfield being the preferred option, of course, but if not that, then everyone able to tune in at home. But Amazon have the rights to this tournament and access to the streaming service isn’t available to all.
France won’t have cared right at that moment as they grabbed control of the match, the Vakatawa-Rattez double-act proving key to the dominance as Scotland struggled with the visitors’ power-play.
France added more power with the arrival off the bench of Haouas. The prop would have been looking for redemption in EH12 after his misdemeanour in the spring and to balance things up, Townsend sent on Sean Maitland for his comeback after his Covid silliness.
With ten minutes remaining Scotland, despite giving away more penalties than they would have liked, were just a converted try in arrears. Ritchie, showing he still had some fight in him, putting pressure on France resulting in another Dupont error. Maybe the scrum-half was hoping Haouas would help him out and throw his weight about again, but the good territory Scotland gained would quickly be lost.
There hadn’t been much between the teams. There hadn’t been much of Dupont but others stepped up for France. There hadn’t been much of Hogg either, the full-back saddled with extra responsibility in Russell’s absence, but then there were usually always at least two men on him. He had a chance in overtime to find great position with a penalty but struck the ball too long. It summed up his and Scotland’s day.
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