Scotland 32 - 26 France: Resilient Scots battle back for victory
Greig Laidlaw was the toast of BT Murrayfield once again as he imperiously guided Scotland to a victory which rescued their Six Nations campaign.
The opening hiding by Wales had made this a make-or-break encounter and, after a breathless, tense and compelling 80 minutes, the Scots head towards the Calcutta Cup in a couple of weeks very much in the competition.
Laidlaw had been recalled to the starting line-up and repaid coach Gregor Townsend’s faith with a majestic display of game management and goal-kicking.
His 22 points helped Scotland back from the brink after more early lapses had left them in trouble, with France wing Teddy Thomas’s first-half double leaving the home side trailing 20-14 at the break.
The Scots also scored two tries in an end-to-end opening period, with Sean Maitland and Huw Jones crossing the line, but found themselves with work to do. Thanks to Laidlaw, who finished the game at stand-off after the off-form Finn Russell was substituted, they got the job done.
Eight days on from the harrowing experience of Cardiff it was imperative that Scotland made a solid start but they managed to outdo the self-inflicted wounding as a try was leaked within three minutes.
French wing Thomas brushed aside the weak defensive efforts of Russell, Peter Horne and Stuart Hogg to skip his way through for the opening score. Maxime Machenaud added the extras to leave the home side in a foreboding hole.
A scrum penalty four minutes later cemented the early French advantage and, when skipper John Barclay was penalised by Irish referee John Lacey for a breakdown infringement, Machenaud pushed the lead out to 10-0 in ten minutes.
A swift response was badly needed and the Scots finally entered the game with a slick backs move which unleashed key weapon Hogg for his most decisive impact on the campaign so far as he hit the line with venom and teased a grubber into the corner, which the French scrambled into touch.
Hogg was involved again as the ball moved left this time, Jonny Gray making a crucial surge before Russell’s quicksilver pass saw Maitland swoop in at the corner.
Laidlaw’s touchline conversion gave Scotland a foothold back in the game, and the tournament. A fluid phase of play followed until punctuated by a penalty to Scotland just inside their own half on the 20-minute mark but no gain could be made as the home side transgressed at the breakdown and squandered the advantage.
A lineout steal got Scottish hands back on the ball but Russell kicked out on the full to continue the topsy-turvy nature of the opening exchanges.
France struck again in the 27th minute and again it was Thomas to touch down as he followed up his own kick ahead and the bounced evaded the scrambling Laidlaw to pop deliciously into the right wing’s gleeful clutches.
Machenaud converted to re-open the ten-point lead and there was rumblings of discontent in the stands minutes later when Russell was yet again wastefully wayward with a penalty to touch.
It hadn’t been the ideal first half-hour but this never felt like Cardiff. The Scots looked threatening, and the French fragile, anytime the hosts kept the ball and got some go-forward.
Jones picked a perfect line to cut the visitors open and, with the aid of Laidlaw’s routine conversion, it was back to a three-point deficit.
Russell made touch with the next penalty to come Scotland’s way but the lineout showed more signs of the malfunctions which spiralled out of control against Wales and stalled the late first-half momentum. It was France who gained the final scoring chance of an entertaining, harum scarum 40 minutes and Machenaud nailed the penalty to make it 20-14 at the break.
For the second time in just over a week Townsend found himself having to rally his troops for a second-half comeback.
The coach was let down in Cardiff by a post-interval regression but the Scots came out strong and Grant Gilchrist’s imposing burst led to a penalty, which Laidlaw stroked over from centrefield to cut the gap again.
It continued to be one step forward another back, though, as Russell’s touch-finding continued to go awry and a penalty for crossing followed. Baptiste Serin, taking over the kicking duties from the departed Machenaud, restored the six-point lead.
It didn’t last long, however, as the tit-for-tat nature of the game continued with another successful Laidlaw penalty.
A bruising 20-phase set from the French yielded another short-range chance for Serin, which he duly took and Townsend put on lock Ben Toolis and loosehead Jamie Bhatti to freshen up the pack for the final quarter.
Laidlaw’s boot was keeping the Scots in at as a breakdown infringement was punished and, for once, the next opportunity went to them rather than the opposition and the scrum-half was as reliable as ever to level the scores.
Townsend withdrew Russell from the fray as Laidlaw switched to stand-off outside Ali Price and the home crowd sensed that France might be on the ropes as Scotland pressed hard, forcing frantic defence from the visitors.
The Scots were well on top now as the match approached its denouement and the French appeared to be fatiguing fast. Another penalty was coughed up and there was never any doubt that Laidlaw would deliver to give the Scots the lead for the first time.
For all the encouragement felt by the clear direction of momentum heading in the right direction, the advantage was wafer-thin and Scotland now had to prove they could close the game out.
When a French attempt to illegally steal at the breakdown was spotted by Lacey it set up an attacking lineout opportunity in the 22 and another penalty was conceded. Laidlaw completed his masterclass, the final French push for the converted try they needed was repelled and the celebrations could begin.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Maitland, Jones; Cons: Laidlaw 2; Pens: Laidlaw 6.
France: Tries: Thomas 2; Cons: Machenaud 2; Pens: Machenaud 2, Serin 2.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Subs: S Lawson, J Bhatti, J Welsh, B Toolis, D Denton, A Price, C Harris, B Kinghorn.
France: G Palis; T Thomas, R Lamerat, G Doumayrou, V Vakatawa; L Beauxis, M Machenaud; J Poirot, G Guirado, R Slimani, A Iturria, S Vahaamahina, W Lauret, Y Camara, M Tauleigne. Subs: A Pelissie, E Ben Arous, C Gomes Sa, P Gabrillagues, L Picamoles, B Serin, A Belleau, B Fall.
Referee: J Lacey (Ire)