Six Nations: Five takeaways from France v Scotland as Les Bleus’ defensive resolve gets the better of brave Scotland

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Following a 32-21 victory for France over Scotland in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Stade de France.

The top line

There is something about France versus Scotland that produces classics year after year and 2023 was no exception as two teams who were reduced to 14 men apiece delivered a thrilling display with France holding on to take the points.

The game will be remembered for so much; the brilliance of Finn Russell and Huw Jones in attack, the defence of Gael Fickou, François Cros and Charles Ollivon, the lineout and maul work of the whole Scotland pack and the sheer effectiveness of Thomas Ramos and Ben White for everything they did.

The match started in brutal style when French flank Anthony Jelonch, who seemed to be everywhere in the early exchanges, received a head injury courtesy of a stray Grant Gilchrist shoulder, an incident that was the clearest red card offence you’ll see.

Not to be outdone, Mohamed Haouas, a man sent off for punching Jamie Ritchie three years ago, became the first man to receive two red cards in the Six Nations as he headbutted White in a ruck in another moment of sheer madness from the French tighthead. Referee Nika Amashukeli, who had an absolutely outstanding Test match, dished out another red card on advice of his TMO and the game resumed as a 14-man-a-side contest.

Scotland’s response to going three tries down in relatively quick succession was one built upon belief, passion and rather more pragmatically, a fantastic display of lineout and maul intellect, and growing scrum power as the match wore on. Sadly, the French defence, chastised by Shaun Edwards in the week, was simply too effective and too smothering for the Scots, but they can walk away from Stade de France with their heads held high in an epic encounter as their Grand Slam hopes came to an end.

A game of two halves

France started this match ridiculously hot and seven minutes of mayhem saw Romain Ntamack stroll over the line as France created a numerical mismatch through the power of their forwards. Ethan Dumortier followed soon after, and in the 18th minute Finn Russell produced yet another try assist, but sadly for France, as Ramos sprinted 70 metres to dot down under the posts.

It seemed all over for the visitors, but Jones, one of the stars of the season, crossed twice either side of half-time, with Russell sliding over in the 67th minute as Scotland created the same numerical mismatch as France had done an hour earlier.

Scotland have made a thing of their ability to put in big second-half shifts against every team they play and once again, their resurgence was one based upon their fantastic fitness levels, brilliant lineout work and a powerful maul.

They had considerably the better of both possession (55%) and territory (64%) but never managed to quite get the breakdown momentum in later phases to challenge French width. Perhaps their red zone efficiency wasn’t quite up to the mark of previous rounds but, given they had 72% of their possession in the French half, they will be furious to have come up short in this match.

The French defence

To give some context as to how well Les Bleus defended, losing Haouas to the red card meant that Gregory Alldritt had to be sacrificed for a replacement tighthead and to compound matters, once Jelonch went off for a second time on the 17th minute mark, France also lost their most abrasive and powerful player. In short, two thirds of their starting back-row went before the first quarter had finished.

But the effort thereafter was absolutely astonishing, not just in tackle count but in terms of disruption, maul driving, and sheer commitment, with Fickou putting in one of the biggest displays of his career.

He stood in the 12 channel where Jelonch would defend at set-piece and then still had the legs and intellect to get back out to the wider channel and get his forwards to defend the inside lines. It was defensive intellect of the highest order, exactly the quality that defines Fickou’s game, and his display was capped off with both a player of the match award and a late try.

However, every defensive leader needs foot soldiers and for 63 minutes Cros put in a performance of understated brilliance, hammering 16 tackles, four of them massive dominant hits and carrying like a demon from first phase.

A man known for his workrate, he was absolutely everywhere, tidying mess, stopping momentum and in simple terms, making an absolute nuisance of himself. His one piece of work on a Scots maul saw him take on four opponents and absolutely tear them apart and get right through the middle in a brilliant piece of technical work.

Cros might not get the plaudits of the more free running French loosies but the man France call Mr Clean due to his insane fitness regime was an absolute rock for them today and Fabien Galthie will be delighted the Toulouse flank is back to fitness. With Ollivon and Thibaud Flament also having big impacts in ‘D’, Edwards’ week of rollickings appears to have paid off.

Scotland’s passion

Scotland are a side that play with a DNA of absolute passion, pride and pace, fuelled in part by the personality of Russell, who, intercept aside, caused the French defence all kind of issues by varying the point of contact.

But to suggest it’s all Russell is to ignore the part Ben White is playing in releasing his fly-half. The Scots are one of those rare sides that are equally as comfortable playing off nine or 10, and that stretches defences as they have to manage two points of potential attack and White has matured into a world-class performer at nine.

As Gilchrist lumbered off, almost in tears for his error, so the Gray brothers fed their half-backs with a superb display at lineout, but one cannot overlook that the poorness of French clearing allowed them so many opportunities to catch and drive that you have to question their tactical thinking.

In the second half, France allowed Scotland 12 throws for one reason or another, failing to control the one point of attack where the visitors held a clear advantage. It is yet again an illustration of the game management workload placed on Antoine Dupont and the lack of match management that comes from Ntamack.

Scotland will be devastated at this loss today, one that might have been so different but for that opening 17 minutes from France. But they are gelling as a side, with a wonderful backline (arguably as good as Ireland’s) now complete with the impressive presences of Jones and Sione Tuipulotu, and Test standard units in every department of set-piece and forward display.

2023 might not be their Six Nations year, but on their outstanding showing in the tournament thus far they have no reason to fear any team in the world.

Galthie’s work-ons

France will be delighted in many aspects of this match. Their defence was stretched to breaking point but came through, their players returning from injury put in massive shifts and they seem to have found an outstanding back up to Uni Atonio at tighthead prop in the rather large shape of Sipili Falatea. In Dumortier, France have clearly simply cloned Damian Penaud and put his doppelganger on the left wing, such is the similarity of style.

But there’s still some questions remaining. The 10 berth battle has raged for four seasons now without conclusion and it’s clear that France are missing Jonathan Danty to the point of pain, but today a new question emerged; tactics under pressure.

Is Dupont so overloaded with work that perhaps he’s not thinking as clearly as he once did? Certainly the point mentioned about lineouts seemed obvious for the onlooker and even given Scotland’s ability to return kicks from their back three, a more conservative approach of contestables down the middle and committed chasing seemed better than feeding the Scottish dominance in the catch and drive.

However, France are still learning and every time they win, be it ugly or with style, they grow just that little bit more and in this match the lessons dealt out by the wonderful Scots will only serve to make this outstanding French team improve even further. Bring on Le Crunch!

READ MORE: France end Scotland’s Grand Slam dreams as two sent off in Paris thriller

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