France eventually got the better of Scotland 32-21 at the Stade de France in Paris to keep their own Guinness Six Nations hopes alive while ending Scottish Grand Slam dreams.
In a match where France led by more than a score for 60 of the 80 minutes, it was still Scotland who were able to control territory and possession.
They paid the price for a slow start though, quickly falling 12-0 behind, with their comeback bid finally foiled by Gaël Fickou’s try at the death clinching both the win and a bonus point, while denying Scotland anything from the encounter.
Two top sides play out a classic
France came out with such intensity early on that this felt like it could be a one-sided affair, Les Bleus racing into a 12-0 lead while Scotland had Grant Gilchrist red-carded just seven minutes in.
Mohamed Haouas joined Gilchrist in being dismissed to even up the numbers, but when Thomas Ramos picked off a Finn Russell pass for France’s third try, the game felt dead and buried.
But this Scotland team have shown all Championship that they can score tries and score them quickly, and they did so again.
A try in each half from Huw Jones and Russell making amends for his intercept with another try made it a four-point lead with ten minutes to go.
France looked to be flagging, having spent much of the game defending, but credit to their control in the final stages.
Fabien Galthié explained after the game that they had prepared for the exact scenario in which they found themselves, leading by four points with three tries scored and a penalty decision.
During the week, Les Bleus decided they would go for the bonus point in that situation, and they stuck with that call in the game.
It paid off with Fickou’s score, keeping France in the running if Ireland slip up over the last two rounds. Whether Galthié will be able to prepare for every scenario France face in the coming weeks is a different matter, but in the final, Championship, minutes, France delivered.
Jones is back
Huw Jones burst onto the scene as one of the most exciting attacking centres in the game, only to fall out of favour.
After dropping down the pecking order, Jones has worked his way back up, showing excellent domestic form at both outside centre and full-back.
Since returning to Glasgow Warriors, he has formed a perfectly-balanced centre pairing with Sione Tuipulotu.
This might have been his most accomplished game of the Championship so far, showing off his trademark nose for a line to get over for two tries, and regularly making inroads in the French defence.
On this form, Jones’s upcoming battle with Garry Ringrose, who should be back for Ireland in Round 4, is mouth-watering, although at this stage the Scotland centre is still trying to work out how his side ended up with nothing from the game.
He said: “We felt like we could win that. After a really tough start, we got back into it, had ascendancy in the second half. We couldn’t get over the line in the last 10 minutes.
“You’ve got to put the first 10 minutes behind you, both teams had to adjust to going a man down. We wanted to play, I felt like we had a lot of attack in their half and just weren’t converting chances. That was the main thing. We felt like we were chasing the game.”
Scotland do not know when they are beaten
At 19-0 down in Paris, some Scotland teams in past years would have crumbled and ended up on the wrong end of a hiding.
This side is very different though. That they were able to dictate play despite trailing by two scores for much of the game shows how much confidence they have in their game plan.
At times it felt like France were hanging on, with Scotland monopolising the ball in the first 30 minutes after half-time as they cut a 15-point deficit to four with ten minutes to go.
In the end, they fell short, but it did not feel like hyperbole when Fabien Galthié described them as the best Scotland team of all time after the match.
And while they came away with no points, having secured ten in wins over England and Wales, it is hard to argue with Gregor Townsend’s assessment that this was their best performance of the campaign to date.
He said: “I was very proud of the team because we probably produced our best rugby of the tournament and didn’t win.
“It’s weird saying that when you’ve had two victories but a lot of our play was outstanding. There was effort, high skill and then there was resilience to go a man and points down and come back into the game.”
Desperate for Jelonch
In just 18 minutes on the field, Anthony Jelonch had a huge impact for France. It was his read and big tackle on Duhan van der Merwe that set up the field position for France’s first try, while he also stopped the big winger from scoring a try in the corner midway through the half.
In doing so, Jelonch injured his knee, and having already gone off for a HIA after the Grant Gilchrist red card, he departed for the remainder of the game with that second injury.
Fabien Galthié confirmed after the game that the French medical team fear a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the flanker.
It would be incredibly cruel on Jelonch, who has been outstanding for France so far this campaign and was arguably their standout player in the first quarter in this one.
His Championship is almost certainly over, and if the initial diagnosis proves correct, then he faces a real battle to be back in time for a home World Cup.
François Cros was very effective off the bench in place of Jelonch, and France are not short of back-row options.
Even so, replacing Jelonch will not be easy, and for the player himself, it is desperately unfortunate timing.
In the immediate, Cros feels like the most likely candidate to replace Jelonch in the starting XV, while France will also need to bring in a new tighthead prop for Haouas, likely a first Test start for Sipili Falatea and either a debut for Thomas Laclayat or a return for Demba Bamba.
Opening up for Ireland
Coming into this weekend, Ireland found themselves level on points with Scotland with the Championship destination very much in the balance.
Italy showed that Ireland will not have it all their own way, but with a five-point return from Rome, and Scotland getting nothing in Paris, the table now makes for very pleasant reading for Ireland fans.
They have a five-point buffer at the top and lead the way on points difference as well.
That means that they could conceivably wrap up the title in Round 4, were they to earn a bonus-point success in Edinburgh and if England’s game against France at Twickenham ends with neither side earning maximum points.
Based on Scotland’s current form, that will take some doing though, even if Ireland are unbeaten in the fixture since 2017.
Two years ago it went right down to the wire, and Scotland will feel they have made strides since then.
If they want to keep their own title hopes alive, they will need to come out on top and reignite the race at the top.