Six Nations 2020: 'Scotland have newfound physical menace'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland

On the outskirts of the melee at Murrayfield there was a moment that said something of the unity of this Scotland team, a togetherness that went with the thunder that blew up France's Grand Slam dream.

Nick Haining had already clashed with Mohamed Haouas - the French are saying that the Scot's hand made contact with the prop's eyeexternal-link - and Haouas had already lashed out at Jamie Ritchie when Bernard Le Roux squared up to Stuart Hogg, the French lock grabbing hold of the full-back's jersey in the manner of a guy about to deliver a lesson.

Within a second, the Scottish cavalry arrived. Where previously Le Roux was looking down at Hogg, he was now looking around at Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Grant Gilchrist and Haining. The message was unequivocal: 'Get your hands off our captain'. Wisely, Le Roux backed away. Or was forced away.

This newfound physical menace has been a revelation to those who have watched Scotland being bullied for years, who have seen them play attractive rugby only to lose and lose again when the opposition turned on the power. All other coaches used to say that the simplest and most sure fire way of beating the Scots was to batter them into submission and then feed on their errors. That's not so easy now.

At Murrayfield, France didn't have the comforts they've grown used to. They didn't have the fast start of the first three games; Scotland denied them that. They didn't have the momentum to launch their monstrous ball carriers; Scotland denied them that, too. They didn't have control at half-back, where Romain Ntamack went off injured early and where Antonine Dupont couldn't bring his brilliance to bear against a suffocating Scottish defence.

Scotland got in their faces and shut them down. That was not entirely unexpected. There was always the probability that the Scots would front up physically. What was debatable was their ability to execute. They'd toiled for three games running. On Sunday, save for more issues around the lineout, they put in their most complete performance since beating England in the Calcutta Cup two years ago.

They trailed 7-6 when the red card happened, but they had a big foothold in the game by then. They were the better side when it was 15 v 15 and though you can't predict these things with any certainty, the feeling is that they'd still have won had Haouas not walked for striking Ritchie.

Scotland were sharp in most of what they did. For Sean Maitland's first try, it was Watson winning a penalty at the breakdown that started it all. Watson missed out on the last British and Irish Lions tour, but he's looking every inch the Lion right now. Ritchie was involved in that move and the blindside flanker is also looking like the coming man of back-row play. Ferociously aggressive one minute and beautifully subtle in his passing the next. Ritchie was a colossus.

After making so many bad decisions in attack earlier in the championship now Scotland are making good ones. Grant Gilchrist made a great call at the foot of the breakdown, looking left but moving it right. Hogg and Sam Johnson were cool in the final moments in setting Maitland free.

At times, it was like looking at that Calcutta Cup win in 2018, minus Finn Russell's magic. Maitland's try in that game started with a John Barclay turnover in his own 22. Maitland's second on Sunday began with a Watson turnover in his own 22. There was no outrageous Russell skip pass this time, but in turning defence into attack it was similarly ruthless.

Hogg's role was pivotal in the beginning. Take his mishaps against Ireland and England out of it and the captain has led and played wonderfully in this championship. For the score that put France on the canvas, Chris Harris and Ali Price went at the guts of the visitors in the way Huw Jones did in that epic score two years ago. Russell gave the try-scoring pass then, but the passes from Ritchie and Hastings in putting Maitland in were just as perfect despite the pressure they were under.

This was attacking of the highest order, a return to 2018 only with the newfound steel of 2020 to back it up. No doubt, Scotland got lucky for the third score, but there was a little more to it than good fortune. Charles Ollivon lost possession in Scotland's half and it was Hogg's precise kick and chase up the touchline - aided by Blair Kinghorn - that put Anthony Bouthier in a hole.

They bundled him into touch and then got a major break with the throw, but the field position in the first place was no fluke and again it was Hogg who gave it to them. So much of Scotland's detail was on the money.

There is still a terribly long way to go before Scotland can be considered contenders for the Six Nations but important steps are being taken at last. The failure at the World Cup had to be a watershed moment. From spending a huge amount of time working on their attack, Scotland have now become obsessive about their defence. They're starting to think like a team that wants to play winning rugby rather than just entertaining rugby, a team that revels in a turnover won while defending their own line as much as a try scored down the other end.

For the longest time they were soft touches and they knew it and it caused tension within the squad about how they should be playing the game. Head coach Gregor Townsend maybe wasn't listening so much before, but he is now. The change in approach has been stark. His team actually look like they're enjoying defending, which is a breakthrough.

Steve Tandy, the Welshman running the defence, has worked wonders in a short space of time. In their past four games they've conceded a total of four tries. In Townsend's first season in the job, Scotland conceded 10 against the same four nations. Last season they conceded 15.

The signing of Pieter de Villiers on a short-term deal as scrum coach has reaped huge dividends. Scottish Rugby need to get him on board on a longer contract. Scotland's scrum is winning penalties and causing damage. Rory Sutherland and Fagerson are two of the props of the tournament as it stands. With Brown or Stuart McInally and the men behind them they've brought an intensity for four games running. They should look on Wales on Saturday as the game of their lives. A must-win. A can-win.

It took a while for the penny to drop, but here we are. Townsend said at the outset of the Six Nations that the new mantra was about making Scotland a nightmare to play against - and they're getting there.

The trip to Cardiff, where Scotland haven't won since 2002, is a bigger test of their mettle. Wales will be psyched to the high heavens having lost three of their four games. They're not what they were under Warren Gatland, but they're dangerous and will be warm favourites.

If Scotland can turn them over then that will be a way more significant barometer of their progress than anything that happened at Murrayfield on Sunday. Beat Wales in Wales and we're talking about the possible rebirth of a national team that's been asleep for much of the past 20 years.

Top Stories

Around Scottish sport