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Six Nations: 2021 was an opportunity missed as Scots revert to disappointing type in 2022

France's Antoine Dupont tries to skip past Ali Price and Finn Russell.
France's Antoine Dupont tries to skip past Ali Price and Finn Russell.

Well, it’s probably official now – 2021 was actually an opportunity missed.

We all thought – hoped – last season’s Guinness Six Nations, with wins in London and Paris, was the start of something for Scotland. Instead, Saturday’s 36-17 pummelling by France showed it was likely a peak.

Scotland had built a decent foundation since the World Cup  – solid defence, ball security, resilience, being “tough to beat”. It was all swept away in a flurry of turnovers and peerless Gallic counterattacks.

This was the first time Scotland have been wholly outclassed in a game since the dreadful Ireland pool match in Japan.

Payback was maybe overdue

There’s generally no disgrace in losing to a team of the quality of this French side. Some of us felt this one coming – Scotland had their way with France recently. The huge number of French in Edinburgh showed they felt that was about to turn.

Payback was overdue and the Scots have not been playing well this entire season, in November nor now.

One assumes France will now take care of England and Wales with some comfort for their long-awaited Grand Slam.

Although not as comfortable as this, you’d imagine. Scotland offered up five of the French tries almost gift-wrapped.

“Turnover ball is the best ball you can get,” said Gregor Townsend. “The French are probably up there with the All Blacks at being the best at exploiting that.”

They had plenty practice with Townsend’s Scotland. It seemed every time the Scots went into contact in the second half they fumbled, were stripped or pinged for holding on.

France had a feast on the deck with Scotland’s gameplan marginalised by Hamish Watson’s late withdrawal.

Debut starter Rory Darge did manfully, and won three of Scotland’s own four turnover penalties. But he was fighting a lone battle much of the time.

Every time a Scot made a half-break you feared he’d be isolated by a Frenchman, regardless of the number of his back, plunging to contest the ball at breakdown.

Technique and simple strength

Simple strength cost Scotland the two tries that effectively ended the contest in the third quarter. Ali Price dithered at the back of a ruck on the French 22 after some decent Scottish phase play and was dispossessed. 20 seconds later Jonathan Danty was strolling in for a try.

Then Darge took it high into contact and you expected the French to hold him up in the choke tackle for a scrum. Not a bit of it.

They targeted the ball, stripped it and popped it out to Damian Penaud, who ambled up the touchline for the score.

The first-half scores were the most galling, however. The first was all Antoine Dupont as he made up for two poor games – by his standards – against Scotland in the last two years.

Finn Russell’s half-charged down kick wasn’t ideal but Dupont could have been stopped twice. Darcy Graham was just plain beaten by the French scrum-half’s ability.

But there was no excuse for the ease in which Sione Tuipulotu was brushed off when Dupont reached the main defensive line. From there, Scotland were fatally compromised and Paul Willemse’s try was inevitable.

There were few excuses for the second either. Nobody was patrolling the right touchline to defend an easy 50:22 kick from Melvyn Jaminet. It’s a new rule, but it’s already a basic.

From that precious territory, the French handling was as sublime as the days of Sella and Blanco. It was prop Cyril Baille who made the second off-load tight to the touchline to keep the ball alive and allow Moefana to score.

The turning point? Don’t kid ourselves

The third try came immediately after what some Scots clung to as the turning point – Stuart Hogg being unable to take a long pass from Chris Harris when Duhan van der Merwe’s power created a 4 on 1 situation.

Price was the receiver closest to Harris, and is not exactly lacking in pace. Simply putting it through the hands would have probably got the Scots the try and a fortunate half-time lead.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the game hinged on that. France immediately accepted two silly penalties to get themselves back in the Scottish 22 with the clock going red.

They then stretched the Scots defence in the wide channels again, going to the far touchline and back. It served to leave Gael Fickou with Ali Price and Nick Haining in front of him. The centre beat them both easily on the outside for the try.

The same errors in discipline

Those two penalties highlight that Scotland are somehow still compounding discipline errors. The one thing the Scots have been consistent in from the three matches so far is a dreadful penalty count – 13 in both the first two games, 12 on Saturday.

The talk of depth, and Townsend’s obsession with capping so many players, has been proved misguided. Just as two years ago when Russell and Adam Hastings went down and they struggled for a 10, now Jamie Ritchie and Watson’s absence is painfully felt.

Scotland now face a trip to Rome,  where we’re still not assured of anything. Then Dublin, where it’s really stretching credulity to think they’ll win for the first time in 12 years.

In 2021 Scotland won three games but lost when they should have won (against Wales) and could have (against Ireland). It was as close as they’ve come to the championship in two decades.

It might be a while before they get as close again.