The 2021 Guinness Six Nations was unique in several aspects but the quality on show remained as high as ever.
A lack of crowds off the field did not diminish the intensity on it and the Championship came to a dramatic conclusion on a famous night in Paris.
France and Scotland had been due to meet in Round 3 but an outbreak of Covid-19 in the French camp meant the clash was re-arranged for the Friday night following Round 5.
That meant Fabien Galthie’s side knew exactly what they had to do. A bonus-point victory by 21 points and France would snatch the title from Wales, who they had beaten 32-30 courtesy of Brice Dulin’s injury-time try the previous weekend in another classic.
This one also brought late drama – but not of the kind France would remember so fondly…
HOGG FANS FLAMES IN THE BUILD-UP
In the aftermath of France’s last-gasp victory over Wales, captain Charles Ollivon – who had gone over himself three minutes from time to kickstart the late fightback – left reporters in no doubt as to his side’s intentions.
“We have six days left together and a trophy to collect,” he said.
“We are already thinking of Friday and everyone is already heading in the same direction.”
His comments struck a nerve with Stuart Hogg, who described himself as ‘hacked off’ by talk surrounding France’s title bid amid his side’s own ambitions.
“We read a quote from one of their players saying they’ve got a trophy to win,” Hogg said. “As a proud Scotsman, that hurt me a lot.
“We win by eight points, and we finish the highest we’ve ever finished in a Six Nations. That’s the motivation for us.”
The touchpaper was lit – now it was time for action.
FRANCE FIGHT BACK AFTER SCOTLAND STRIKE FIRST
Scotland took their grievances on to the field, responding superbly to going behind to an early Romain Ntamack penalty by crossing for the first score of the game courtesy of Duhan van der Merwe.
Finn Russell added the extras, along with a later penalty, to put Scotland 10-3 up and the sides then exchanged periods of pressure in opposing 22s, with France the more ruthless.
Ntamack’s boot reduced the arrears and, following a string of penalties, France went in front when Dulin finished off a neat move involving Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud.
There was further punishment to come for Scotland either side of the half-time whistle, with Hogg yellow carded and Penaud punishing his indiscretion after the restart, latching on to his own kick to go over for a score which gave France an 18-10 lead.
DEADLY DUHAN PROVIDES LATE TWIST AFTER RUSSELL SEES RED
At this stage, France were eyeing up a flurry of points to keep their Championship dreams alive but Scotland had other ideas.
Dave Cherry’s scrappy try, followed by Finn Russell’s conversion, put the visitors back in front but their advantage was short-lived, Swan Rebbadj responding in kind to give France a lead which remained at three points when Ntamack hooked his conversion wide.
That lead was equally slender with 10 minutes to play, all but guaranteeing the crown would be heading to Wales, but that did not mean a shortage of late drama.
Finn Russell received a 71st-minute red card for leading with his elbow into Dulin’s neck, but Romain Taofifenua’s yellow two minutes later meant it was 14 versus 14 for the closing stages.
With memories of ending curses in Wales and Twickenham fresh in the memory, Scotland were keen to cure another generation-long bout of travel sickness and found their reward with the clock in the red.
Hogg and Ali Price came within inches but it was Van der Merwe who made the breakthrough, powering over after a looping pass from Adam Hastings to send Scotland and Townsend – not to mention millions of Welsh fans – into dreamland.
“I’m so proud of the team,” Townsend said.
“We had to come back against a very good side but they showed courage, effort, togetherness, and skill to win.
“Even though we finished fourth, it feels like one of our best-ever seasons with the victories we’ve had this year and the performances especially.
“We’ve grown a lot this year, grown a lot this campaign, and we’ve got to continue to grow over the next few years.”
Scotland have done just that, and they return to the Stade de France on Sunday full of confidence after two wins from two.
A repeat of the 2021 result and they may just start dreaming of doing what no Scottish team has done since 1999 – bringing the Championship back to Edinburgh…