When Mohamed Haouas crashed his fist into the titanium-enforced cheek of Jamie Ritchie, the thunderous blow of a melee that plunged France into dreadful hardship, Scotland knew they had the Grand Slam-chasers precisely where they wanted them.
This was a grievous regression, an act of self-harm that spoke of the old France – the France who self-destructed when the pressure came on; the France who let a demonic emotion possess them, scrambling their senses and poisoning their rugby. Haouas’ red card grossly handicapped them.
We hadn’t seen the old France in the brief but brilliant reign of Fabien Galthie. Until they rocked up in Edinburgh, his squad of talented young men had been immensely diligent in their work and disciplined in how they handled adversity. They were callow, sure, but unflappable nonetheless.
The Scots riled and badgered them in a way that England, Italy and Wales could not. For the first time in this tournament, crevices formed in a glistening veneer. Haouas let fly and as his knuckles mangled the features of the Scotland flanker, so too he punched a great big hole in the swelling French bubble.
Ritchie might have been binned himself for aggravating the mighty prop. Nick Haining could have gone for shunting Haouas in the chops, the initial flashpoint that stoked the fire to come. Haining might still find himself in hot water. Certainly, the French management have made firm remonstrations to the citing commissioner about the number eight’s role in it all.
But this was not merely a tale of Scotland needling France until they lost their collective rag. It was a hugely controlled and effective home performance, all the more impressive given the continued absence of Finn Russell.
Tactically, too, it was a big moment for Gregor Townsend, who has been pilloried since a brutal 2019 and hard-luck stories against Ireland and England in 2020. Stuart Hogg got slated for spilling the ball sickeningly over the Irish line in Dublin and guddling over his own whitewash in the lead-up to England’s match-winning score at Murrayfield. Adam Hastings faltered in Rome in the turgid Scottish triumph last time out.
The coach, the captain, and the emerging fly-half come out of this one with major plaudits. Townsend went a little left-field with his selection but picked a team to handle France physically and gave them a blueprint that would expose their flaws with smart kicking and canny defence.
Hastings’ game management was excellent. He kicked some fabulous goals and made a dazzling break for Sean Maitland’s first try. Hogg had a hand in that too, and a bigger hand in Maitland’s second just after half-time. The skipper has been a forceful fulcrum these past two games.
The Scottish pack, though, were at the heart of this rousing afternoon. Even before Francois Cros was binned and Haouas sent off, the home scrummage bossed it. Zander Fagerson is flourishing as a titanic customer on the tighthead side with a voracious work-rate, but most startling this championship has been the searing ascent of Rory Sutherland.
Over three years ago now, the Edinburgh loosehead blew his adductor muscles clean off his pelvis. He spent weeks in a wheelchair unable to sit up, eat or relieve himself without his wife’s assistance, then underwent month after painstaking month of rehabilitation. Sutherland is a frightening specimen of a man – he is well on track to recording a 220kg bench press – but the road to his rightful place in the Test arena often seemed hopeless.
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Four years after his first clutch of caps, he has come of age as an international, a colossal scrummager and a destructive presence around the paddock. How Scotland longed for a loosehead that could do both. A Lions berth is far from beyond him. The addition of scrum specialist Pieter de Villiers and the rise of Sutherland have been precious.
Behind Sutherland, Grant Gilchrist – restored to the team – put in a chart-topping 23 tackles, five of them dominant hits. Ritchie and Hamish Watson hunted and scavenged like wild dogs, Haining thundered around with and without the ball.
These are the kind of nasty, confrontational blokes Scotland need. They have found their steel and their snarl and no longer are they ripe for the physical bludgeoning by teams, like France, with a big power game. Defensively too, there have been massive strides. Scotland leaked tries like an old colander in 2019, but Steve Tandy has plugged the holes with a new system. There is less emphasis on chasing turnovers at every breakdown and more bodies covering the field as a result.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 8, 2020
Incredibly, Scotland have the best defence in the championship, averaging just over twelve points conceded per match. Against Ireland, England, Italy and France, they have shipped a total of four tries. Against the same opposition in 2019, they lost 15. Of course, there are mitigating factors – the Calcutta Cup deluge was hardly conducive to a try-fest – but these are extremely heartening numbers.
On Sunday, Scotland forced France into conceding 13 turnovers, ten more than they lost against Wales and five more than Italy forced in the previous round. Scotland put in 17 dominant tackles. France made only seven, compared to the 28 visited upon Welsh ball-carriers in Cardiff. Their error count bulged as the Scottish defence turned the screw.
There is a caveat to all of this, undoubtedly. France played 53 minutes of the contest with 14 men and over 70 without their stricken play-maker supreme Romain Ntamack at a venue where they last won in 2014. Still, they did not wilt; still, they scored two tries and still, even at the death, they cleaved Scotland open with some beautiful flourishes of attacking abandon. It was a glimpse of the old France, yes, but there was plenty of the new.
'Spooky day' conclusion potentially on the cards for 2020 tournament ?https://t.co/mgEn3uy1ye
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 10, 2020
The Scottish lineout remains a niggling frailty in need of some surgery. Both Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally threw in squint, even if one of McInally’s lost throws led directly to his rampaging try. And there were absolutely more scores out there for Scotland had they made the most of their field position and opportunities. Really, it should have been a bonus-point win.
Regardless, with this triumph, the whole complexion of the Scotland campaign changes. Win in Wales, and they top the table until such a time as the postponed fixtures are played. They would finish with three victories – the general benchmark for a good Scottish campaign – and two losing bonus points in desperately tight games, all without their most valuable asset, Russell.
Townsend’s position looked decidedly shaky a month ago, shakier still when the details of Russell’s departure detonated across the media. He still has questions to answer, but the pictures are a lot prettier now. He looks to have learned lessons from Japan and appointed smart lieutenants whose impact is tangible already.
Hastings, Ritchie and Fagerson were five years old when Scotland last won in Wales. Townsend was playing that day 18 years back. Wayne Pivac’s team are, like Scotland, in a state of evolution with three losses against Ireland, France and England, two of them very narrow and with some delicious rugby along the way. This will be a fiendishly tight Test. History is against Scotland, but form is not.
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