After taking a week off, the Six Nations Championship returned for round 3, starting with France’s trip to Edinburgh. Les Bleus were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam this year, and soon found themselves ahead at Murrayfield as Antoine Dupont’s break was followed up by a series of strong runs from the pack and ended with Paul Willemse crashing over from close range. The Scots soon hit back with a penalty from Finn Russell, but the French immediately answered by spreading the ball all the way to the left off a lineout and then sweepin back right, with Damian Penaud and Cyril Baille both keeping the ball alive as they were bundled into touch, allowing Yoram Moefana to cross for the try. The Scots finally began to get some control on the game and Baille was perhaps lucky to not give away a penalty try for a high tackle on Ali Price as he was held up on the line, but the Scots kept up the pressure with a quick tap and soon saw Rory Darge go over for a try on his first Test start. As halftime approached, the game felt like it was on the edge of a knife, and when Duhan van der Merwe broke away in midfield with support, it looked like the Scots would go into the break with the lead. However while Chris Harris’ support line was bettered only by his wide pass to Stuart Hogg, the Scottish captain had forgotten his catching hands and saw the chance disappear, a moment that would come back to haunt them even more just moments later as Gaël Fickou arced over in the corner, with Jaminet converting to turn what could have been a 17-12 lead for the Scots into a 10-19 lead for France.
If there was any question as to how the momentum had shifted in the final moments of the first half, it took just 2 minutes for the French to score their 4ᵗʰ try and secure the bonus point, as Damian Penaud broke down the wing and chipped forward, and though he was outpaced by both Hogg and van der Merwe, all three were beaten by a wicked bounce of the ball which fell into the hands of Jonathan Danty to go over on his return from injury. The Scots continued to have plenty of possession, but were having to attack from deep, and when Darge had the ball ripped in a maul, the ball was spread to Penaud to go over out wide, and the wing scored his second with just minutes left as Romain Ntamack foundhi in acres of space with a clever cross-kick. The game was over as a competition, but when replacement Blair Kinghorn fielded a kick and found a gap in the French defence, he burst through and fed van der Merwe for a try that at least salvaged a little pride for the home side, with a final score of 17-36.
While this was anything but a good day for the Scots, one massive positive they can take from the game was the performance of Rory Darge. With Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson both out injured and Hamish Watson also ruled out with COVID, Darge found himself given the 7 shirt having made his debut off the bench in round 2.
And what a performance the young back row put in! For a player to make 1 or 2 turnovers at the breakdown in a Test is usually an achievement, Darge seemed to be the one consistently getting a hand in at the crucial moment, bringing a number of promising French attacks to an early end. And while he did not have quite the physicality of Watson in attack, he certainly did his fair share of carrying with 14 carries (a team high) for 39 yards.
While it is still early days, Darge looks like a natural at Test level, and this is great news for Scotland as they look to develop depth in their back row. For a while now it has been Watson, Ritchie and one other in the back row, but Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury have both grown into capable Test players. With Darge now entering the fray, they have 5 great options to pick from when everyone is available, with Bath’s Josh Bayliss and Saracens’ Andy Christie also looking like they could become regulars in the wider squad over the coming years—good news for everyone except Nick Haining, who will surely struggle to keep his spot when other options are available after another performance that showed he is not suited to this level.
This was a stellar performance from Les Bleus. Though the Scots had the greater possession and ran for more metres, there was only ever one winner in doubt.
Barring a few breaks, the French defence comfortably dealt with everything the Scots threw at them, while the pack dominated at the set piece and helped create quick ball in attack. And with the quality of ball carrying throughout the squad, the team were able to consistently manipulate the Scottish defence—who were given an even harder task with the loss of Chris Harris at halftime—to score in just a handful of phases.
But they didn’t even just do this in one way. They utilised a break by then having their forwards charge onto the ball at pace to keep up the momentum for Willemse’s try, while for multiple tries they forced the defence to overcommit to the farwing by spreading it from the right touchline all the way to the left wing in one phase, only to then put it through the hands and work the numbers spreading the ball right back to the right wing where the Scots ran out of numbers.
Back in 2020 I predicted that France would win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. While the Springboks still look deadly, these performances from France continue to convince me that I made the right choice.