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The five moments that cost Scotland dearly against France

By Ben Smith
eferee, Nic Berry signals that the ball is held up as Sam Skinner of Scotland (obscured) attempts to score a try during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Scotland and France at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Scotland’s chances for a potential Grand Slam disappeared following a heartbreaking 20-16 loss to France at Murrayfield after Sam Skinner was held up over the line on the final play.

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It felt like it was going to be Scotland’s day when Duhan van der Merwe made a try-saving tackle on Gael Fickou just metres from the line, before getting up and intercepting the ball from a questionable position.

What could have been a yellow card and penalty to France metres from the try line ended up a lineout back past halfway after Van der Merwe’s punt bounced perfectly over the sideline.

After building a 13-3 lead in the first half hour of play, Scotland were in a commanding position to start their campaign two from two and twist the knife into Dupont-less France.

Where did it all go wrong? How did they end up on the wrong side of the scoreline? Here are five moments that cost Scotland the most.

Matt Fagerson’s exit platform – 29th minute

Scotland had a couple of problems with isolated ball carriers, which you simply cannot have against the likes of Gregory Alldritt and co.

Immediately after Russell’s penalty goal to extend the lead to 13-3, Scotland failed to exit and turned the ball over leading to a French try.

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Matt Fagerson was held up by Alldritt in a bear-strength tackle on the kick-off return. When France’s No 8 let him go, he smartly clattered into the supporting players, knocking over the cleaners. Fagerson isolated on the ground was picked off by Peato Mauvaka causing the ball to spill.

Lock Scott Cummings jumped on the loose ball, but he in turn became isolated and France won the ball back from another poacher. From that turnover, France constructed multiple phases and Gael Fickou’s try.

Whilst it was still very early in the match, it was an unnecessary and costly concession from a basic exit situation. They coughed up seven points just like that.

France may well have eventually scored a first-half try but they did not have to earn the territory to do so here.

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Game management in dying stages of first half – 40th minute

With a little over three minutes on the clock in the first half, Scotland turned down a shot at goal for a quick tap move from five metres out.

The set play did not work, they ran a switch play on third phase and Russell played an inside pass to Sione Tuipulotu which was gobbled up by France’s interior defence. After some settling phases, Scotland tried another backs’ release which was intercepted by Louis Bielle-Biarrey.

The silver lining was another penalty, this time from dead in front of the posts from five metres out. Prop Uini Atonio was yellow carded, giving Scotland a one-man advantage.

After rolling the dice once, they decided to roll it again on a scrum instead of taking the points, turning down the chance to make it 16-10.

Had Atonio not been sin-binned, they probably would have kicked the goal, but they were suckered into the lure of a one-man advantage.

They gambled and came up with nothing (see below) but were bailed out a third time by another penalty. After rolling the dice twice, a third was a stretch too far. They conceded a penalty before the feed on their own scrum.

After two failed attempts for a try, points would have been a good idea. A penalty goal would have essentially ended the half with less than a minute to play.

Considering they scored the first points of the second half through Russell’s boot, the game could have been 19-10 in Scotland’s favour had they taken three to end the first half.

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Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe’s execution blunder – 39th minute

Some blame must go on the decision to turn down points covered above, but the blame for failing to execute on the scrum play falls on Jones and Van der Merwe for blowing a walk-in try.

Scotland’s centre and wing got their wires crossed, with Jones front-running Van der Merwe and blocking his potential pass to a wide-open Kyle Rowe.

France had to substitute left winger Bielle-Biarrey for a prop to complete the scrum, leaving Rowe as the unmarked man.

Perhaps the play call was a bad one having Van der Merwe inject as the required playmaker – he isn’t renown for his passing. He ends up tackled and France hold on to end the half. The pass simply had to be made.

Scotland’s backs blew a walk-in try to Rowe (14) to potentially go up 20-10.

Kyle Rowe’s knock-on – 79th minute

Scotland’s right wing wasn’t given the chance at the end of the first half but he nearly became the hero at the end of the second.

After France had worked into a four point lead via a Ramos penalty late, Scotland had to make something happen with the clock winding down.

Up stepped Rowe. He scooped bad pass and zipped up the middle past no less than five French defenders into open pasture. He broke away downfield with just one problem: no support.

Unlikely to score himself, he tried an in-and-away on Ramos and was brought down by the trialling defence. He lost the ball once it hit the ground, spoiling a good opportunity for Scotland.

His 50-metre break went in vain. Despite not having any passing options, Scotland had players to secure the ruck. Had he held on, Scotland would have been hot on attack with France’s defence scrambling back.

That opportunity to attack was possibly better than the final barrage.

Sam Skinner held up – 81st minute

Say what you want about the held up call by Nic Berry and TMO’s decision to overturn it, but with the clock red and the game on the line Sam Skinner is not the player you want to give the ball.

If Scotland’s brain trust were to pick a player they want to have the ball from five metres out to win the game they would likely say Finn Russell or Duhan van der Merwe.

France’s defence had been shortened up following eighth phases of play on the goal line. Up to 11 French players are visible in the tight shot on the TV broadcast before Skinner is given the ball.

The space to the right hand side is likely on for any of Scotland’s backs to attack. Release the ball to Russell and let him make something happen.

Scotland have persisted with this red zone strategy for years which has barely paid dividends. Now it’s cost them a chance for a Grand Slam.

When Scotland beat France in 2021 in Paris after a game-winning try in the 84th minute, the pick-and-goes laid a platform during the final passage but did not get the result.

They played with width until Adam Hastings went over the top with a big cutout pass to Duhan van der Merwe. The strike weapon beat a couple of defenders by cutting inside and diving over to score.

Sam Skinner has not scored a try for Scotland in 31 Tests and unfortunately that hasn’t changed.

And no disrespect to the lock, but he is not a game-winner you want to give the ball to decide the game.

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