Scotland played the part of Six Nations party poopers to perfection on Friday when their 27-23 victory at the Stade de France emphatically denied France the title.
Duhan van der Merwe’s try with the last play gave Gregor Townsend’s side victory. A first win in Paris since 1996 for Scotland that meant France finished the tournament in second place. This put them four points behind winners Wales.
Fabien Galthie’s team’s performance stood in stark contrast to their last gasp 32-30 victory over Wales. This kept their title hopes alive and rounded off one of their most remarkable performances.
Why then were France able to back up that showing, and what does it mean for Les Bleu’s long-term ambition of triumphing on home soil when hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup?
France have struggled in this Six Nations due to their inability to score beyond the hour mark against Ireland and England as well as Scotland on friday. While they hung on against Ireland, England ended their Grand Slam hopes with a late Maro Itoje try.
They appeared to have put that idea to bed against Wales with 12 points in the last four minutes to win the match. However, while Swan Rebbadj scored their third try after 65 minutes against Scotland they were unable to score a fourth in the final 15 minutes.
Long before that though it was Scotland’s dominance of the early phases that truly set France back. Romain Ntamack may have opened the scoring with a penalty on eight minutes. However, thereafter Scotland dominated the opening 25 minutes.
By the time Ntamack slotted his second penalty in the 27th minute, Finn Russell had converted van der Merwe’s first try and added the conversion and a penalty to make France’s already difficult task, harder still.
It played on France’s nerves, dug into their confidence, and meant they started chasing the game. This was exactly what Scotland wanted.
Backrow Battle – Rule of Three
The way the match broke up played right into the Scottish back-rower’s hands. Flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie were utter pests, the flaxen-haired Watson especially. Between them, they made 15 and 13 tackles and delighted into getting into positions to disrupt France’s play.
Along with number 8 Nick Haining they each made over 10 carries with Watson carrying a team-high 17 times. Haining also ran for the most metres with 95, Watson was next with 78, and Ritchie covered 56m.
Such distances contrast greatly to France’s back-row trio of captain Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt, and Anthony Jelonch.
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They were the top three in tackles. However, only Alldritt made significant headway with the ball in hand, carrying for a match-high 106m from 12 carries.
It showed how much Scotland’s back-row enjoyed the upper hand. While Ollivon has proved his worth as captain and player, Jelonch has much work to do to nail down the third berth. Could Wenceslas Lauret be the man to fill that hole? After all, neither Ollivon nor Alldritt are natural in the jackler role that Lauret performs so well for Racing 92.
World Cup-winning teams always have a well-balanced back-row trio. Think Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Duane Vermeulen from South Africa’s 2019 winning team, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill when England won in 2003, or the back-to-back winning New Zealand trio of Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino.
France’s last great three of Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy took them to the 2011 final. Similar quality is available, but a similar balance will also be needed if France intend to reproduce another such run in 2023.
Fiddling with Fikou
One of the great ironies of France’s defeat was Gael Fikou being named man of the match. Not only was he limited by Scotland’s performance, but also by Galthie’s decision to start him on the wing.
The French coach isn’t the first to try such an option with limited benefits (see Philippe Saint-Andre doing something similar with Wesley Fofana). However, it speaks volumes that Fikou can maintain his performance despite being shifted from one position to another.
Fikou made 11 tackles, more than anyone else in France’s backline. however, more significantly his station out on the left-wing dampened the impact of his centre partner from the week before, Virimi Vakatawa. He was far less effective than against Wales, when he covered 125m, against Scotland he only made 45m.
Fikou moved inside when Vakatawa was taken off on the hour mark with Teddy Thomas coming on as wing. It meant that Fikou could benefit the team more, but without Vakatawa alongside him such benefit was limited.
Centre pairings, like back-row trios, are at the heart of successful teams and in Fikou and Vakatawa. Galthie has a combination that combines powerful running, soft hands, and rock-solid defence. Why then break it up with a trophy on the line?
Hammer of the Scots
France showed against Wales what happens when they feel they have been aggrieved. Paul Williemse’s red-card sparked their unlikely comeback to set up the possibility of winning the title against Scotland.
Come Friday though there was no such emotional prompt, and none came during the 80 minutes. It was Scotland who drew on the emotion in the build-up with captain Stuart Hogg channelling his inner Scotland Braveheart to point out that his team weren’t going to Paris to roll over and applaud France off to collect the Six Nations.
His words reflected his team’s performance, especially when Russell was sent off with 10 minutes to go. Though it was the cool head of Adam Hastings at the end to find van der Merwe that allowed Scotland to wrap up a famous victory.
Townsend can look back with pride on his team’s progress and while they make look back with regret at how they lost to Wales. Friday’s win stood in contrast to their last must-win match, against Japan at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
That day they let the hosts start the stronger and while Scotland fought back they couldn’t them in and left the tournament at the group stage following a 28-21 defeat. Scotland showed that they have learned the lessons of that day.
Work to Do
The best World Cup-winning teams don’t need emotional prompts. They know what is on the line and can raise their performance accordingly.
Twice in five months, France has missed the chance to win the Six Nations thanks to Scotland. Yes, in the Autumn Nations Cup final they had a weakened team, but they had England on the ropes at Twickenham and failed to land a winning blow.
Against Scotland, it was a massive task, but they went into the match knowing exactly what they had to do though at no point did they appear capable of scoring four tries, let alone build a margin of 21 points.
Come the 2023 World Cup knockout stages it will be a simple task of winning matches. They may have rallied against Wales, but the loss to Scotland shows that there are still problems to solve and emotional issues to address before they can be considered among the favourites.
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