Gaël Fickou’s try on the stroke of half-time proved the decisive blow as France cemented their position at the top of the Guinness Six Nations table with a commanding 36-17 win away to Scotland.
Against the only side that they had not beaten in the Championship under Fabien Galthié, Les Bleus did not have it all their own way. In fact Scotland could have led shortly before half-time but for a ball escaping Stuart Hogg’s grasp on a brilliant counter-attack.
That came as Scotland trailed 12-10, but instead of taking the lead, Fickou went over just before half-time and France were able to pull away after the break as they made a statement of intent.
Overall, this was a dominant performance from France, who ran in six tries in all, Paul Willemse and Yoram Moefana going over for two early wonder scores.
Despite Rory Darge’s first Test try, Fickou’s score allowed France to lead 19-10 at the break before Jonathan Danty got the bonus point right after half-time.
Damian Penaud then added another as France showed how deadly they could be on counter-attacking ball before he collected Romain Ntamack’s cross-kick to add a second. Duhan van der Merwe’s score at the death was slim consolation, a very different scenario to his match-winner in Paris a year ago with the final play.
With three wins from three, France remain in Grand Slam contention ahead of a trip to Cardiff in Round 4.
Les Bleus flew out of the blocks on this one and could have led after five minutes when Julien Marchand won a turnover penalty on the Scottish 22. The wind was causing kickers all sorts of problems though, Ntamack having already put the kick-off out on the full, and the usually reliable Melvyn Jaminet saw his effort go wide to the left.
It did not take long for France get on the board though. A kick into French territory had Dupont scrambling back, but after collecting the ball, he skipped past Darcy Graham and Darge before powering over Ali Price. Fickou was on hand to put Cyril Baille through a gap and then Fickou again recycled for Marchand to feed Willemse to finish one of the tries of the Championship. Jaminet made up for his earlier miss to make it 7-0.
Scotland responded by claiming the restart through Graham and when Uini Atonio strayed offside, Finn Russell cut the deficit to four points.
But just before the quarter-hour, France were in again. It started from a 50:22 by Jaminet. From the lineout, the French backs produced some sublime hands with offloads and crisp passing to put Penaud into space on the right. The cover defence drifted across and the winger ran out of room, offloading back to Baille just before being pushed into touch. Baille then did the same with Moefana on hand to dot down.
Jaminet could not convert from the touchline, but France were motoring at 12-3.
Scotland looked in danger of being overwhelmed, but instead they started to build a foothold in the game, one big shove in the scrum earning a penalty in their own 22.
In Darge, they had an absolute menace at the breakdown, the youngster earning two turnover penalties in quick succession, the second of which came just as France looked like they were going to set up another long-range attack.
They started to trouble Les Bleus and play in the French 22, Price only just denied on one sniping run. With a penalty, Scotland decided to tap and go and the decision proved a good one as the impressive Darge picked a great line a few phases later to cross. Russell converted and Scotland were back within two points just before the half-hour.
It could have been even better shortly afterwards, a stunning counter-attack from Van der Merwe leaving the French defence scrambling. Just as Penaud brought him down, he found Chris Harris, but the centre’s pass just escaped the clutches of Hogg, who knocked on when he would have been in for the try.
France punished that error before half-time, taking advantage of Scottish indiscipline at the lineout to get back into the 22 and Fickou showed his pace on an arcing run to go over in the corner. Despite the tricky conditions, Jaminet converted from the touchline for a 19-10 half-time lead.
And immediately after half-time France wrapped up the bonus point with another counter-attacking score. After Price was scragged behind a ruck, the ball fell to Woki who then spread it to Danty who in turn fed Fickou. He stepped in before putting Penaud into space. The winger chipped over the top, and then the bounce beat both he and Van der Merwe, popping back to Danty who was able to scoot around the right and over for the try. Jaminet’s conversion came back with the wind to make it 26-10.
Jaminet had the chance to extend the lead when Zander Fagerson was caught coming at the side of a maul, but his effort just drifted wide.
But just before the hour they had the fifth try to seal the win. It came as Scotland had tried to play from their own half. They could not find a way through and when Darge was stripped, Romain Taofifenua emerged and it was quickly shifted wide to Penaud. He was never going to be caught by Grant Gilchrist and cantered over. Jaminet’s touchline effort came back off the upright but France were in control at 31-10.
And Penaud, who had been outstanding all game, added a second late on when he collected Ntamack’s pinpoint cross-kick to stroll over untouched. Scotland did have the final say, with Van der Merwe finishing after a Blair Kinghorn break, but it was far too little, too late.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Antoine Dupont is the reigning World Men’s Player of the Year and he showed just why here. It was not just the break to set up the first try, although the combination of pace, power and elusiveness in that run was breathtaking.
It was also defensively, where Dupont would shut down Scotland’s wide attacks constantly, seemingly reading Finn Russell’s intentions before the fly-half had even received the ball. The French captain was ably supported by a brilliant team performance, but he is so influential in every facet of the game.
PLAY GUINNESS SIX NATIONS FANTASY RUGBY