Here's where it gets sticky for Scotland
It was only a warm-up game. And it was only a heavily rotated France fielding almost none of their heaviest hitters. But by the way Murrayfield shuddered and swayed as Scotland dug in against the final French onslaught, by how Gregor Townsend bellowed with joy in the coaching box as Ben O’Keeffe blew for a Scottish penalty at the death, it could have been a World Cup final.
If ever a match encapsulated the madcap nature of Scottish rugby, it was this one. A team just as capable of shooting the lights out as they are shooting themselves in the foot. A meek first-half showing devoid of possession and cohesion, peppered with sloppy passes, bungled lineouts and average kicking. A second forty with pretty much all the elements that will be needed to escape the most ferocious of World Cup pools in a month’s time.
Scotland cannot play as poorly as they did in the opening half and expect to live with any of the game’s elite, least of all South Africa’s irrepressible power or Ireland’s multi-phase cyanide. Equally, should they deliver the kind of rugby that had France flailing thereafter, they have enough ammunition to challenge either of the beasts they must slay to reach the quarter-finals.
The panache of the second half should not expunge the pallor of the first. After a sprightly opening, which yielded a Finn Russell penalty, Scotland fell into a weird stupor. A kind of funk they seemed incapable of shaking. They could not generate go-forward or gain a territorial foothold. By the interval, they had shipped three tries, lost several lineouts, failed to make a single line break and been dynamited on the floor by an athletic French pack. Of the ruck ball France generated, 86 per cent of it was recycled in under three seconds. The territory figure was 61:39 in the visitors’ favour.
Remember, this was not the France of the Six Nations. The glittering winning machine which swept each of rugby’s major nations aside en route to 19 straight victories. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Japan and each of the Tier One European opponents were scalped in that time. Only Ireland, on the Grand Slam trail, halted Fabien Galthie’s crashing tsunami. France fielded almost none of their front-liners in Edinburgh. The superhuman Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack were not utilised. Baptiste Couilloud, starting in place of Dupont, is probably Galthie’s third-choice scrum-half. The top-tier centres, Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou, did not feature. Damien Penaud – by common consent, the best wing in the northern hemisphere – was left out. Cyrille Baille, Julien Marchand and Uini Atonio, Galthie’s premier front-row unit, was nowhere to be seen. Charles Ollivon, the back-row talisman, was a spectator. So were the enormous Gregory Alldritt, Anthony Jelonch, another destroyer, galloping lock Thibaud Flament, and points accumulator Thomas Ramos.
In their stead, a much-changed French team, callow in some quarters, took Murrayfield by storm. So much upheaval, so many months since their last international, on the final day of the Six Nations in March, and yet they found gears Scotland could not.
Louis Bielle-Biarrey was the most eye-catching new face, the 20-year-old Bordeaux-Begles flyer helping set up Couilloud for a beautiful opener and slicing Scotland open to bag a second France try on his Test debut. Word is, Bielle-Biarrey has clocked sound barrier-smashing times of over 39kph in training – faster, even, than his illustrious colleague, Penaud. In France, they call him ‘the electric scooter’.
With its immense television deal, thriving second tier, JIFF quota system, rampant Under-20s and vibrant public following, French rugby is in the rudest of health. Shiny new products are plopping off their production line by the boxload. Galthie has a vast pool from which to select his World Cup 33, and to carry into the next four-year cycle. Scotland go to France next weekend and will likely face an entirely different, and substantially more
familiar, home side.
Concern now turns from Scotland’s tame start to Zander Fagerson’s jittery future. Disciplinary penance beckons for the tight-head prop after his red card for a dangerous clear-out on Pierre Bourgarit. Fagerson’s charge was not malicious, but in failing to lever Bourgarit legally off the ruck, instead clattering him about the face with a giant arm, he was always doomed.
Fagerson is Scotland’s hardest forward to replace. In every other position in the pack, Townsend has options, bountiful and reliable in most cases. At tight-head, 37-year-old WP Nel is Fagerson’s back-up. Save the genius of Russell, Fagerson is the player Townsend would least like to lose.
And here’s where it gets sticky. For the big man has previous. He was sent off for a similar clear-out against Wales two years ago and Scotland’s players did not exactly take the sanction quietly. While in both cases, Fagerson had no intent to hit the ruck dangerously, it will be hard for him to earn the customarily generous mitigation.
He got four games, reduced from six, for his collision with Wyn Jones. Scotland have two more warm-up matches before their pool opener against the Springboks. These will be anxious days for Fagerson. His World Cup fate dangles in the balance.
“We just have to hope the judiciary see the same as we see,” Townsend said post-match.
“I’ve seen the incident again and he does adjust his feet [unlike in the previous case against Wales]. There wasn’t much speed, it wasn’t reckless, he just didn’t get under Bourgarit’s chest, which can happen in the 200 ruck clears or whatever happen in the game.
“I hope they see there was nothing reckless in there, nothing out of control, it was just a timing issue in how he couldn’t get under the jackaler.”
Midway through the first half, Townsend was shorn of Ben White. An ankle injury forced the scrum-half to the sidelines. White has cemented his place as Scotland’s premier number nine and any lay-off would be cruel and costly.
“Ben is much more positive now,” Townsend went on. “It was an area he had an issue with at the beginning of our World Cup camp but he’s been training fully for six weeks. He is off to hospital just to make sure there is nothing in the scan. It might be he struggles to play this week but hopefully he will be available for the World Cup.”
Such is the fraught business of these matches. A player may fear tournament-scuppering injury more than defeat. But he can make himself undroppable too. Townsend reckons no more than 10 places in his final 33-strong squad are up for grabs, a week-and-a-half before the final cut are confirmed on 16th August. He fielded his strongest-possible XV against the French and none of the incumbents did much to harm their cause.
In fact, Dave Cherry, a second-half replacement, has given Townsend something to think about. Cherry doesn’t have the explosiveness of George Turner or Ewan Ashman on open prairie, but he is arguably Scotland’s finest set-piece hooker. The lineout improved after his introduction. An average of close to five metres per run is decent going too. And he was shrewd enough to squeeze home off the back of a trundling maul for what proved the winning try.
Darcy Graham continued his scintillating return from a long spell on the treatment table. If you were picking a World XV tomorrow, the fearsome little Borderer would be bang in contention. There can be few players anywhere in the world with Graham’s power-to-weight ratio, never mind his bewitching footwork and top-end speed. The gallus streak which courses through so many top athletes forever burns to the fore with Graham. He makes yards he simply should not. He bamboozles tacklers who really ought to bury him. He can run down the darkest of alleyways and find the tiniest chink of light.
Graham, scuttling on to a deft Russell crosskick, sparked the Scottish revival three minutes into the second half. He finished with 83m from his 15 carries – only Brice Dulin ran with the ball more times – beat five Frenchmen and took his incredible try tally to 19 in his past 16 matches for club and country. What a precious asset he will prove in France.
Duhan van der Merwe did not score, but did nothing to suggest his mighty impact is waning. The slew of aching French defenders bludgeoned by the juggernaut will attest to that. Blair Kinghorn lanced smartly into the line, seeming more at ease in his old full-back role than in the more recently adopted fly-half berth. The Graham-Kinghorn-Van der Merwe axis looks every inch Townsend’s go-to back-three.
The replacements – especially Cherry and Rory Darge – brought the required levels of energy and grit, five of them emptied off the bench soon after Fagerson’s dismissal.
“We showed much more of who we are in that second half, both in attack and defence,” Townsend said.
“To do it with one fewer player for the majority of the second half is going to be really positive for the players’ level of belief. We know we have got to improve a lot more ahead of next week.”
For Scotland to overturn a 21-3 half-time deficit gives them lungfuls of belief. That they did so with 14 men for 27 of the final 40 minutes was all the more heartening. It was a warm-up game, against weakened opposition, but it didn’t feel like one. It won’t in a week’s time either when Galthie unshackles his big dogs on their own patch. This is how it should be. Maybe this is how it has to be, if Scotland are to pull off the spectacular in September.
The challenges only get tougher from here.