As we reached the middle week of the 2019 Six Nations, France made a number of changes again in the search for their first victory against a Scotland team forced to make changes in notable positions due to injuries. France put in a performance like their first half against Wales, with a Romain Ntamack try helping them to a 10-3 halftime lead. Tries from Yoann Huget and Gregory Aldritt confirmed the victory and after Ali Price scored a consolation try, Alldritt crossed again with the last play of the game to earn France the bonus point and a 25-10 victory.
As if Scotland hadn’t been struggling with injuries enough in this tournament, this match was a step too far. With half their pack already missing, Ryan Wilson became the latest casualty in the forwards, while Huw Jones was ruled out for the rest of the tournament and both Stuart Hogg (shoulder) and Finn Russell (concussion) were also unavailable for the trip to Paris. With the amount of players missing including some of their biggest stars and most influential players, I’m honestly not surprised that they struggled in this match.
Blair Kinghorn was the clear replacement for Hogg and continues to impress in the tournament to the stage where I think Gregor Townsend will find it hard to drop him from the XV when everybody is available, probably at the expense of either Sean Maitland or Tommy Seymour – in my opinion, Seymour is not looking at his best and has squandered a couple of opportunities this tournament by not being in the right position.
Jones’ injury made space for Nick Grigg and while I have not seen much before this match that stood out, I thought he was fantastic defensively against France with a range of tackles including a 1v1 low hit that stopped Mathieu Bastareaud in his tracks and a wonderful covering tackle on Antoine Dupont when he looked set to score. The Jones/Johnson/Jones combination looks dangerous in attack, but if anyone can break into that midfield at the moment it will be the more defensive Glasgow centre.
Peter Horne is a quality player, but I honestly do not understand Gregor Townsend’s decision to start him at fly half. While he has been a regular at international level in recent seasons, it has not usually been at 10, whereas Adam Hastings had appeared to have cemented himself as Finn Russell’s understudy. I imagine that Horne’s experience is what got him picked over Hastings, but I don’t think that his style of play suited the team as much as Hastings. I found Horne to play generally quite a safe game that rarely troubled the French, whereas once Hastings was introduced, there was much more variety in the Scottish play. If Hastings is considered ready to be Russell’s replacement, then he needs to be given the starting job in his absence.
On the right track
This was the best French performance so far in the championship – though admittedly that isn’t saying much after their first 2 games! Having kept a fairly settled pack, Jacques Brunel once again made a raft of changes in the backs, but this time appeared to find the combinations to really hurt a depleted Scotland side.
Antoine Dupont is a dangerous attacking threat but this match showed that he has also worked on his kicking game and I now see him and Baptiste Serin as the regular one-two punch at scrum half, while Morgan Parra and Maxime Machenaud give good depth at the position. Romain Ntamack looked assured at fly half and gave the team a good variety in attack, having the pace to go himself for his try while also putting in an inch-perfect chip to Gaël Fickou for a try that was unfortunately disallowed. The centre pairing between Fickou and Bastareaud looked well balanced and confident, with Bastareaud even catching the Scottish out with a delightful chip and chase. Meanwhile in the back 3, Damian Penaud looks more comfortable on the wing by the week (though admittedly he was targeted much less by the Scottish kicking game than against England), while Thomas Ramos was often in position to take the kicks and had the ability to launch some deadly counterattacks.
This does not mean that the French performance was perfect, however. Ramos did not have the best of days off the tee, which makes me wonder if Serin or Lopez will find themselves back in the starting XV next week. Meanwhile Yoann Huget continued to show an inability – or perhaps lack of desire – to get back and cover the backfield in the kicking game. Huget is a talented attacker, but I think that when everybody is fit and available, a winger like Teddy Thomas or Rémy Grosso can provide similar danger in attack but more security in defence.
With the final play of the game, Gregory Aldritt earned France the bonus point for scoring 4 tries, but they also had a whopping 4 tries disallowed through referrals to the TMO during the game, but should they have all been disallowed?
- Damian Penaud was the first to have a try ruled out in the corner after the TMO ruled that Antoine Dupont had knocked on when picking the ball out of the ruck to pass to him. The replay was shown a number of times and I’m still to be convinced that Dupont played the ball as to me it looks like the man clearing out knocks it forward with his leg. The TMO is there to overturn the try if there is clear and obvious evidence that the try should not stand; considering how many times the replay had to be viewed and the fact that there is still a question over the knock on, I can’t see how that can be considered clear and obvious.
- The next to have a try chalked off was Gaël Fickou, who collected a lovely Ntamack chip in the Scottish 22 and went over for the try. The try was disallowed as replays proved that Wenceslas Lauret had knocked on earlier in the play. The knock on was clear, however the play continued and there were 2 rucks before Fickou went over for the try. The TMO protocols state that a TMO review can only go back up to 2 phases, so while the right decision was technically made, the TMO should not have been reviewing an incident this far back.
- Fickou then had a second try ruled out after he reached through a ruck on the Scottish try line to dot down the ball which was being presented in the in-goal area. On review, the try was not given as it was decided that the ball had been grounded in-goal by the Scottish as they presented it back. I can understand why the decision was made as technically a ruck cannot be formed beyond the try line, however the hand position of the player presenting the ball makes me question if there was really any downward pressure before Fickou’s intervention.
- Not long before France’s fourth try was awarded, they found themselves falling foul of another TMO referral as Gregory Aldritt was considered to have performed a double movement in the act of scoring a try. While the replacement back row was clearly stopped short, he did not appear to make any further movement towards the line and appeared to be pushed over by the support man. The TMO could be heard saying that the player was pushed over the line but then decides that Aldritt has made a double-movement, which goes against his previous statement.
Now I watch more rugby than most would consider healthy and while I would not consider myself an expert in the laws of the game, I would say that I have a good understanding. So for me to have found questions about 4 disallowed tries that on another day could have proved crucial to the result, it must be wondered if some of the laws and protocols need simplifying to make the job of the officials – and the experience of the fans – better.