The 2021 Six Nations came to a slightly later end than usual – though still much earlier than the 2020 edition – on Friday night with France hosting Scotland in Paris. This match was originally part of Round 3, but a COVID outbreak in the French squad saw the match delayed. Unfortunately for the Scots, this led to the match being played outside of the international window, and the greed of Premiership Rugby meant that Scotland were only allowed to pick a maximum 5 England-based players.
The French may have denied Wales the Grand Slam in dramatic fashion on Super Saturday, but they knew coming into Friday’s match that they had a sizeable mountain to climb in order to win the title: a bonus point win, with a points difference of at least 21 (or 20 if they could score 6 tries) and with the rain pouring down, the mountain was already beginning to look like Everest. So, all things considered, it was a bit of a shock to see France settle for the 3 points after 9 minutes when given a choice of 2 penalties 5m out from the Scottish line. The decision looked even more suspect on the 15 minute mark as George Turner was stopped just short of the line following a Scottish lineout from 5m out. Hamish Watson was similarly stopped just short, Duhan van der Merwe forced his way over for the opening try, though Welsh fans must have been considering themselves lucky as replays showed that a clear double movement had been missed. Finn Russell added the conversion before trading penalties with Romain Ntamack, and after 30 minutes the French were still looking for their first try. It finally came though with 5 minutes left in the half, as a period of France pressure led to a raft Scottish penalties, and from a scrum in the Scottish 22, Antoine Dupont looped the pass out to Damian Penaud, who evaded the clutches of van der Merwe and drew the covering defence before popping inside to Brice Dulin. Ntamack converted to give Les Bleus a 13-10 lead, and they were back on the attack in the final minutes of the half, which led to Stuart Hogg being sent to the sin bin as a result of Scotland’s high penalty count. France went to the corner and it looked like they were about to get try number 2 right before the break, only for Julien Marchand’s throw to be stolen by the Scots to end the half.
The French onslaught continued against the 14 men of Scotland after the break, and n 46 minutes they made the breakthrough, with Virimi Vakatawa offloading to Damian Penaud, who chipped Russell and beat Ali Price to the ball, successfully dotting down despite a tackle off the ball from the Scottish halfback. With Scotland back to 15 men, Russell kicked a penalty and the French continued to probe for an opening but struggled to find it, with one notable attack going from the French try line to the Scottish 22 in a matter of moments, only for Dupont’s chip to be cleaner up by Russell. This moment appeared to be a turning point in the momentum, as France began to lose their discipline and the Scots took advantage to put on some pressure of their own, and they found the breakthrough on the hour with a lineout 5 metres out. Dave Cherry found his jumper and the ball was switched to the back of the line, but Swan Rebbadj managed to get a hand in to rip the ball loose before the maul could be fully formed. Cherry, who had only been on the pitch for about 90 seconds, was coming round to join the maul and reacted quicker than anyone, picking up the loose ball and going over for the try to level the scores, with Russell converting to give the Scots the lead. France quickly hit back and after a strong carry from Grégory Alldritt brought play up to the Scottish try line, Dupont sent Rebbadj over for the try, with Ntamack missing the conversion from out wide to leave Les Bleus with a 3-point lead. The clock was ticking down but Welsh fans would know that 15 minutes was more than enough time to score 18 unanswered points, and they must have got even more nervous with 10 minutes left as Finn Russell was shown a red card for leading with a forearm into the neck of Brice Dulin. However, the chance of a late run took a real shot when replacement scrum half was sent to the bin as Wayne Barnes lost patience with French indiscipline. As the clock ticked down it looked like the game would end in a narrow French victory, but when France won the ball back as the clock went red, Brice Dulin tried to launch an attack rather than settle for the 3-point win, leading to Scotland winning a penalty. And after 5 minutes of pressure in the French 22, Adam Hastings spread the ball wide to van der Merwe, who stepped inside to avoid a tackle and went over for the winning try, Hastings kicking the conversion to secure a 23-27 victory, the first Scottish win away to France since 1999.
The result confirmed Wales as 2021 Six Nations Champions, while a losing bonus point saw France hold onto 2ⁿᵈ and the Scots finished 4ᵗʰ.
France have a fantastic squad with some enviable depth, helped a little by the willingness to bring in younger players and also the player use agreement with the Top 14 during the Autumn Nations Cup that led to them blooding a number of players. However, in the big games you want your big players, and I think that – as well as the COVID outbreak causing issues – the French were undone by bringing Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa back in right after they recovered from injury, rather than waiting to ensure they were back to match fitness.
Both players are fantastic talents, but they have been a shadow of themselves in recent rounds and not looked up to the pace of international rugby. Granted, Matthieu Jalibert would have probably got the starting spot for consistency had he not been ruled out due to the short turnaround, but there would have still been options in Louis Carbonel, or even moving Dupont out to 10 and bringing Serin in at 9, while having Fickou in the centre with Arthur Vincent and having Teddy Thomas on the wing would have probably been a better set-up given the weather conditions.
Of course, this is still an inexperienced French team, with a head coach in Fabien Galthié who now only has 15 Test matches under his belt as head coach. They will improve in this area with experience, and I still feel comfortable in making them my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Conditions in the first half can could only be described as horrible, with the rain pouring down. While France probably tried to play too much in the poor weather – perhaps understandable given the requirements to win the tournament – the Scots got their tactics right in the bad weather, which went a long way to winning the match.
With Chris Harris having become such a reliable figure in defence and flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in fine form, the Scots were happy to put boot to ball, either kicking to the corners and forcing Les Bleus to play from deep – one notable kick from Finn Russell holding up just short of the French try line and forcing the French to play the ball under pressure, leading to Jamie Ritchie tackling Brice Dulin and winning the turnover penalty in the 22 between the sticks. And when they weren’t kicking deep, they were kicking to compete, putting extra pressure on Brice Dulin – who struggled last weekend under the high ball – to field a slippery ball.
We know all about Finn Russell’s ability as an attacking 10. While his red card may not have helped him, the rest of his performance will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that he can be the starting 10 of the Lions.
After another great performance around the breakdown, that back row duo of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie must be heavily in Warren Gatland’s thoughts.
On the other end of things, Zander Fagerson had a tough time in the scrum against Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille, while if Duhan van der Merwe misses out, it will be due to his frailties in defence being deemed not enough to make up for his abilities going forwards.