There will be no Grand Slam. France’s best chance in a decade to pull that off was ruined at Murrayfield by a stellar Scottish performance, featuring a brace from Sean Maitland and a back-breaking red card for the France tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas for a punch at the end of the first half, from which the visitors never recovered.
The outcome also capped off a good weekend for England, who have now gone top of the Six Nations table on points difference ahead of France with one round to go.
As Haouas departed here, rightly sent off for a punch to the head of Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie after the two came together in a ruck, you sensed that France were once again destroying another golden opportunity. Haouas’ mindless act brought back memories of Sebastian Vahaamahina’s own implosion in Oita at the Rugby World Cup, red carded for an elbow on Aaron Wainwright that killed off France’s hopes of progressing to the semi-finals.
Haouas’ exit, a third penalty by Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings and then a well-worked try to put Maitland over in the corner all came in the space of less than five minutes. Collectively it felt like a knockout punch, not only in the context of the match but for France’s Grand Slam hopes as well, even with the second half still to come. Maitland’s second try shortly after the interval – made by a fine break from Chris Harris, slipping past Paul Willemse then combining with Ali Price – hammered that point home.
France were out of sorts, no question, but it would be a disservice to forget how excellent Scotland were in so many areas. The scrum churned out penalties. Stuart Hogg, given time and space to attack, was lethal. Hamish Watson, supreme, set the tone for the day with his physicality. Scotland have been outmatched too often in that area in the past. Not on Sunday.
«You get confidence when you see the rewards you get for doing something, and the way we’re training, it really gives me a lot of encouragement. We had a big session on Wednesday, lot of physicality, lot of tackling and contact work, and we saw the players take that into the game,» explained Gregor Townsend, the Scotland head coach, who finished his press conference by paying tribute to the late Wales centre Matthew J Watkins.
«We’ve been consistent throughout the championship, we’ve defended well and we’ve been tough to play against. Obviously [the red card] is important, but I thought we played better in the first half than the second. We had France on the back foot, and we turned them over nine times in the first half in the way we defended.»
Ritchie, deservedly named player of the match, was everywhere, unhindered by that punch from Haouas which was brilliantly captured by the nearby photographers.
«It was the metal cheek. I’ve seen the photo a couple of times. I was a bit shocked. I must have one of those faces,» Ritchie said afterwards. «I couldn’t sense they were getting rattled. I saw Nick Haining on his own and three French guys around him, so I ran in and I got punched in the face. It’s one of those things that happen in a game and the guy’s got sent off. I can’t say too much about it. I don’t know what was going through his head but I caught the brunt of it.»
France were chasing from the start, with flanker Francois Cros yellow carded for his part in a tip tackle on Grant Gilchrist. Romain Ntamack, France’s impressive fly-half, was also lost to a concussion having also missed an early penalty.
Two penalties from Adam Hastings put Scotland into a 6-0 lead but France’s best period of the match led to their first try, all starting with Julien Marchand winning a turnover penalty. From the resulting lineout France stretched Scotland left and then right, before Antoine Dupont’s brilliant chip out to the wing found a waiting Damian Penaud.
But then France imploded, and Scotland produced a sharp performance that will go down as one of their best under Gregor Townsend. A Hastings break set the platform for Maitland to grab his first try, with Sam Johnson straightening before delivering the final pass. By the time Maitland had crossed for his second try after half-time, Murrayfield was rocking.
Matthieu Jalibert stemmed the tide briefly with a penalty before a lineout steal by Dylan Cretin backfired, the ball eluding Dupont and bouncing up perfectly for Stuart McInally to race away for Scotland’s third under a Murrayfield rainbow.
A consolation score came from Charles Ollivon, his fourth try of the tournament, with the France captain powering through Watson to finish. That try hardly made up for the disappointment of not only losing out on the Grand Slam, but also losing their star scrum-half, Antoine Dupont, to a serious injury, after he left the field gingerly holding his arm with five minutes left to play. Raphael Ibanez, the France team manager, later revealed that Dupont had suffered a shoulder dislocation.
«We had less intensity, I am not sure why. We will look for those answers,» admitted France head coach Fabien Galthie.
The loss of their star scrum-half capped off a miserable afternoon for Galthie’s young France side. But what a magnificent one it was for Scotland, taking that gift from Haouas and turning it into a clinical, encouraging victory.
France will be kicking themselves. But Scotland played well and took advantage. Gregor Townsend’s played smart, with control and discipline. Scotland deserved the win.
That is all from us today. Roll on next week!
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