Scotland ran France close, playing all the rugby but just missing a few bounces. But what did we learn?
Okay, trusting in youth has its problems
On these pages, in the autumn, I banged on about youth being given its head and flourishing as a result. Yes, back then the young Scots did come off fairly positively against the “best team in the world” (B version) and thump two other decent sides, but this was an introduction to the fire of the Six Nations and perhaps a truer reflection of where they are, at international level.
Dougie Fife gave away a silly penalty when throwing away the ball, and there was a general lack of nous to change things up in the face of an onslaught from France. In the second half Scotland should have kept the ball, kicked less and looked to offload rather than go into contact where they were being smothered by Bernard le Roux and Thierry Dusautoir.
Would it have worked? Debateable, but the game was there for the winning. There were things to take heart from: Finn Russell and Mark Bennett looked to the manor born, facing a hostile crowd of 75,000 in an arena like the Stade de France for the first time.
There’s life in Euan Murray yet
At the other end of the career spectrum, the tighthead put in a vintage performance, winning scrum penalties and giving his opposite number a torrid time in the loose, meaning that France were substituting props as early as half time.
He was also unusually prominent in the loose, showing some soft hands for Fife’s try, and tackling everything he could. The downside is his religious views prevent him from having a pop at the Welsh scrum next Sunday. Geoff Cross will be an able deputy, but it is great to see Murray hitting form again.
If Scotland can sort the discipline they’d become very hard to beat
With a semi-decent scrum, a far better lineout and a miserly defence in the face of much bigger attacking runners – one that conceded no points when a man down – what let Scotland down was their discipline. Without the disciplinary lapses, that French wouldn’t have been in the game at half time nor in the lead during the closing stages.
Scotland played all the rugby.
Fife won’t be throwing dead balls away in a hurry ever again, but everyone really needs to switch on to whatever wavelength the referee is on at the breakdown and stick to it religiously. Which brings us to…
Securing their own quick ball is still a problem
Scotland can live off scraps, but to get the backs really firing they need quicker ball. The French positioning at the breakdown was excellent, while Scottish players struggled to clear the opposition out quickly enough and were much less consistent with their body positions over the ball. Scots ball was secure and the opposition’s slow when Blair Cowan was on, and much less so when he was off briefly in the second half.
Someone needs to throw some of that BT sponsorship money at luring Richie Gray (the other one, founder of GSI, Springbok breakdown consultant and former coach of Gala) back from South Africa to help the Scottish boys out.
Wales will be a challenge
With the Welsh a traditional bogey team in recent years, and generally excellent in the speed of their breakdown work, next Sunday represents a tough test. With Murray out, a potential hip injury to Tommy Seymour (Scotland’s most in form back), and knocks to Alex Dunbar and Bennett too, the fear is that Scotland cannot put out the obvious first choice back division to make the most of the pack’s hard work.
A makeshift team will struggle against whichever Wales turns up, making the possibility of the renaissance turning into a false dawn more quickly that I can mix metaphors.
And as for discipline: we’ll never forget Stuart Hogg’s red card last year in Cardiff. It still haunts Scotland fans.