TEXTBOOK improvisation. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but that was what France produced at BT Murrayfield on Saturday as they beat Scotland 36-17, in the process enhancing their status as firm favourites for the Six Nations Championship and ending the home team’s hopes of a tilt at the title.
At their best, Scotland can conjure up moments of brilliance, but nothing like the sustained excellence that the French achieved in this six-try triumph. And, while it is legitimate to accept that this France team are simply superior to their rivals at least in some respects, the concerning thing from a Scots point of view is that Gregor Townsend’s side have not been anywhere near their best in their three games so far. Indeed, judging by the score in this game, they are further away from it than they have been at any point this season.
The head coach accepted afterwards that the margin of defeat had been galling, but suggested it had been partly caused by the need to chase the game in a second half which had barely begun when France scored their fourth try to take a 16-point lead. Townsend’s overall conclusion, however, was that the scale of the loss was at most a secondary concern.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve won games or lost them by close margins,” he said. “It’s disappointing to lose it by more. To be honest, whether we lost by a point or by 20 points, it doesn’t change things too much.
“Our goal is to win the game, and to win the game we must take our opportunities when you get them and when you do it becomes a different game – the opposition have to do something different. We didn’t get our opportunities and France got tries either side of half-time. That made it a very hard game to win.
“The scoreline is probably extended as we were chasing things in that second half, chasing it from too deep at times. I’m not too worried about how the scoreline got away from us. It’s more making sure we can work our way towards winning games.”
Scotland did precisely that against England, but failed agonisingly to do the same against Wales. And although they might well have scored a couple more tries on Saturday to add to the two that did count, their opponents always looked capable of scoring again when it mattered.
If Paul Willemse’s opening try was the product of individual brilliance from Antoine Dupont, Yoram Moefana’s second was the perfect summation of the whole team’s approach, as loosehead prop Cyril Baille displayed the artistry not often associated with his position in offloading cutely to the try-scorer.
Finn Russell got Scotland off the mark with a penalty between those two scores, and converted debutant Rory Darge’s try after half an hour to close the gap to 10-12. But Gael Fickou’s try in time added on and then Jonathan Danty’s two minutes after the restart reaffirmed French dominance. A Damien Penaud double then followed as Scotland appeared increasingly bereft of ideas, and while Duhan van der Merwe had the last word after an excellent break by substitute Blair Kinghorn, it was far too little far too late.
Scotland can still emulate their achievements of the last two seasons and end up with three victories from five matches, but to do that they will have to win first in Rome and then in Dublin. If they manage the first match in style, they will head for Ireland with realistic hopes of ending their campaign with back-to-back victories. But the priority before they play again will surely be how to handle the despondency provoked by this defeat, which is threatening to turn yet another Six Nations into one which began with great promise only to end in an all-too-familiar feeling of deflation.
“We go into every championship with aspirations of winning each game we play and being in the mix going into the last two weeks,” Townsend added. “Despite the result in Cardiff we still had an opportunity against France to be in the mix if we had won but we didn’t. It’s over to other teams to challenge for that title now.
“We know it’s a huge tournament, the Six Nations, and we have two important games to improve and show what we’re capable of. But it is disappointing that we won’t be involved in any title race as the tournament goes into the last fortnight.
“We know we have to put our best team out and put on our best performance to win in Italy. They will be hugely motivated by our scoreline and France getting tries from our errors. We’ll have to play a lot better next week to win that game.”