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France still have way to go to equal England

 

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Held up: Virimi Vakatawa is tackled  by Adam Hastings and Hamish Watson

Held up: Virimi Vakatawa is tackled by Adam Hastings and Hamish Watson

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Held up: Virimi Vakatawa is tackled by Adam Hastings and Hamish Watson

Last Sunday, I sneaked into town for a little bit of brunch before the Scotland versus France game in Murrayfield.

One of the people at the table had a betting account with a bookie and sensing an upset I asked what price Scotland were for the win. Evens? I kept my money in my wallet and continued with my meal.

Did the bookies know something everyone else didn't? This was the renaissance of French rugby happening before our very eyes.

A clinical dispatch of a Scottish side that had at this stage seen more new dawns than a milkman and, hey-ho, on to France for a return to the good old days and familiar Irish lambs for a warm sunny-day slaughter in Paris. Except, no!

In contact sport, anything can happen.

Rugby is not just a contact sport, it is a brutally confrontational and gladiatorial match between two teams of highly-trained, aggressive athletes in an environment where testosterone trumps reason.

We watched events unfold at Twickenham the day before where the irrational presented itself again and again. What law states that it would not happen in Edinburgh?

France would have to play some decent rugby to reach their objective - earning a Grand Slam in Paris followed by champagne and celebrations at the final whistle.

Let's not kid ourselves - if all the matches had been played this weekend and France had done what they were supposed to have done in Murrayfield, there would be no earthly way for Ireland to compete against a French side with its tail up and sniffing glory.

Would the match have gone ahead in Paris if the French had got the victory in Murrayfield?

It would have been tantalising to just point the finger at the goings-on in Cheltenham, sanitise the whole stadium and, as Boris Johnson would have said, 'Let's get the Grand Slam done'.

France would not have waited.

The bottom line here is that the French were not Championship material and despite picking off England in the first match, they are a good distance behind England. If both teams played again next week, my money would be on the Red Rose.

If the Championship is eventually brought to a conclusion, England will win it by virtue of thumping Italy in Rome.

Whatever Ireland and France do, it wouldn't be enough to unseat England, who admittedly weren't good enough to get try bonus points against Ireland and Wales when they were most assuredly on offer.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the handbag scuffles that are now part and parcel of the game. The object of the exercise is to be aggressive and confrontational but not to get suckered into going any further than that.

Was the mindset of Momo Haouas on the job at hand or was it the prize in Paris? Too young, too inexperienced and too stupid.

Keep your nerve - do your job and don't get distracted by a Scottish side that had very little going for it on the day apart from home advantage.

France were unlucky to lose Romain Ntamack to a head injury and equally unlucky to lose Francois Cros to an unlikely tip tackle. It is hard to tackle someone hard, anticipate which way their body reacts and falls and then gently guide them to the ground.

Contact sport played at 100 miles per hour does not allow you to do such things. Cros got 10 minutes and the prickly Scots got some encouragement.

Scottish footballer Alan Hansen famously said that "you can't win anything with kids" and the age profile of this French side told you that they needed to be far more skilful to deal with the lack of match temperament and emotional intelligence when really required.

Their weaknesses were bubbling up throughout the tournament.

It is true that France have a very handy mid-five. That French back-row is the best in the Championship. I don't think I have seen a quicker or more athletic No.8 than Gregory Alldritt in the series.

Antoine Dupont is everything that Conor Murray is not and although Ntamack has poise, grace and intelligence, he is still a bit off where he needs to be, particularly in defence.

Ntamack's replacement Matthieu Jalibert, although a talent, was awful on Sunday, completely misreading the pace of the game.

Damian Penaud is almost as bad a defender as Teddy Thomas and Anthony Bouthier and Arthur Vincent are pretty average.

I think we were mis-sold on this French team. That said, whenever Ireland do play them we might not have the horsepower or the smarts to beat them.

Average as they are, Scotland got a few things right this season. They picked up Steve Tandy, who used to ply his trade at the Ospreys.

Tandy is a capable operator and he gave the Scottish defence some semblance of organisation - Scotland have only conceded 49 points from four games, the lowest in the Championship.

Scotland's forwards got right into the pitch of the game with their aggressive tackling and swamped any French initiative at source. They were, as usual, offside all day.

The Scots took on Pieter de Villiers as their scrum guru and with the advancement of Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland they have a scrum that troubled everyone in the Championship - including Ireland.

So you have a very solid scrum and a suffocating defence, a maturing out-half in Adam Hastings and a very dangerous full-back in Stuart Hogg, who eventually would stop making match-losing mistakes, and suddenly, unless you play well against that lot, they can beat you.

If France were real contenders they would have beaten Scotland with 14 men or not. You can't consider yourself to be contenders to anything if you lose to Scotland.

The lack of quality told in the way both dealt with the twilight zone of chasing bonus points.

Mentally, the French were spent well before the final quarter but a losing bonus point would be crucial when the maths was done on the final day.

Even with 14 men, they showed in glimpses that they could undo the Scots but never had the confidence or conviction to go for it - just not a Championship side.

As for Scotland, you could see the limitations. When Hamish Watson turned Jalibert over on the halfway line in the 67th minute (illegally), the ball was quick and perfect for a counter.

George Horne went down the blindside and was aided into touch nine metres later by a grateful French defence - grateful that the Scottish replacement scrum-half had no idea what to do with high-quality turnover ball. A criminal offence at this level.

How could France still lose to the Scots?

Pretenders with the same old core weakness dressed up with a Shaun Edwards veneer.

England are still the best team in the Six Nations.

Belfast Telegraph