Six Nations 2019: Scotland 'stuck in reverse' after flunking French test
The bitter reality is that Scotland were lucky to leave Paris with a chasing rather than a full-blown horsing, a 17-point loss rather than a 30-point loss - or worse - that could have, and possibly should have, befallen them.
Until the bench came on and offered a little belligerence and accuracy, this was a non-performance, one that left Gregor Townsend sounding angry - or as angry as Townsend gets - and deflated - or as deflated as Townsend gets. When the Scotland head coach said that the navy blue jersey deserves better it was about as frustrated as he has come across in a very long time.
Townsend criticised his starters for a lack of energy, a lack of accuracy, a lack of focus. He bemoaned their errors - the same crass mistakes that they made in clusters in the second half of the defeat by Ireland - and concluded that the whole experience was disappointing. There are other words he could have used. Not for a family audience, perhaps, but appropriate all the same.
Scottish rugby folk are a largely philosophical crew. Close to 20 years of failure tends to knock the chutzpah out of you, after all. They would have gone to Paris with hope rather than expectation, knowing that Scotland's mammoth injury list made victory unlikely. They would have dreamed, of course, but for the most part the travellers would have been fairly grounded in reality.
They would have anticipated a performance, though, and they didn't get it. We can - and must - highlight the missing warriors - Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Duncan Taylor, John Barclay, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson and more - but the misery comes in thinking that there was enough out there for Scotland at the Stade to make a decent stab at it but then being confronted with the awful reality that they weren't even close.
What was so grim was their ineptitude at times. That was a surprise. Dropped balls. Missed tackles. Penalties conceded. Important line-outs lost. Impetus and momentum cast to the wind by a steady flow of blunders. It was like watching the second half against Ireland again. Lessons learned from a fortnight ago? No.
They survived and survived again. One French try ruled out. Then another. When Yoann Huget was binned in the 26th minute all sorts of possibilities opened up for Scotland. Blair Kinghorn pinged the penalty to touch. They had a line-out five metres from the French line. Ponderous phase after ponderous phase and then a turnover.
Before Huget reappeared, there was another chance. They had another line-out, this one deep in the French 22. Had Scotland come up with something, scored and went in 10-10 at the end of a 40 minutes where they'd scarcely existed in attack, you'd have needed defibrillators in the dressing room to revive French confidence.
Instead, Wenceslas Lauret stole the ball and France cleared their lines. A minute later they were applying pressure again in Scotland's 22. On the front foot at one end one minute and scrambling on the back foot the next - all because of their own lack of control.
Scotland 'are just too nice'
A minute into the new half, France scored their second try. With nine minutes left they scored their third and then a fourth. They were on a mission in those closing seconds. Forward power brought the bonus point and left the Scots in an unholy heap.
Scotland's depth - or lack of it - was exposed in the heat of Paris. It hammered home the point - no hammering required, to be truthful - that unless their main men are on the field then their chances of winning games like this are somewhere approaching zero. Even when the top boys are available Scotland face an almighty task winning on the road in tournament play.
Never mind the autumn or the summer. Peace-time rugby. The Six Nations is a rugby war and Scotland are turning up wanting to win a beautiful victory every time. For everybody else, winning ugly is part of their DNA. They have a nous, a hard-bitten quality, a relentlessness, a frightening hunger for victory. They can get down in the muck and grind their way through. Scotland have shown an infrequent capacity to do it at home, but rarely away from home. They're just too nice.
A fortnight ago against an Ireland side lacking in confidence was a day when they needed to announce themselves as a maturing force. They didn't. Paris was a chance to put on a performance in adversity that showed mental strength, but they flunked that test as well.
Can Scotland be taken seriously as contenders? No. They'll be praised - and at times the praise will have a patronising tone - but respect is hard won and you only get it by winning more often than Scotland win or, at the very least making it a whole lot harder for opposing teams to win.
Ireland didn't have to be anything more than average to win at Murrayfield. The galling thing about the loss in France is that Scotland - yes, a much-weakened Scotland - didn't fire a shot until it was far too late.
They didn't test France's fragile confidence. They didn't bring them to the kind of dark place where France needed to play catch-up against a backdrop of derision from their own people. They didn't ask any questions. And even without the missing cavalry they should have been able to do that much.
Scotland are now looking at a home game against a Wales team in pursuit of a Grand Slam and then an away game against England at Twickenham. Not even the greatest of optimists would hold out much hope for Scotland in either of them. The Tests with Ireland and France represented Scotland's best chances of taking momentum from the Six Nations. Not good enough and now stuck in reverse.