Scotland need consistency after huge strides in 2021 Six Nations

By Andy BurkeBBC Scotland

There was something fitting that in a Six Nations Championship that has enthralled from the first moment, the very last play of the tournament should provide such heart-thumping drama and elation.

So often when Scotland have had their opponents hurt they have been unable to land the killer blow. It happened against Wales in this championship, and while they certainly did not deserve to beat Ireland, at 24-24 with four minutes to go, the Irish were there for the taking before ultimately escaping with the win.

This was different. With the clock way into the red, the Scots played with bravery and accuracy in equal measure until the chance presented itself for Adam Hastings to throw a lovely wide pass to Duhan van der Merwe, who powered his way over the line for the winning score in the 85th minute.

At 23-25, there was nothing riding on Hastings' conversion, yet there was something deeply satisfying in the way he banged it over from the touchline to the roaring approval of his team-mates - a glorious final note in an extraordinary evening for this Scotland team.

Scotland handle the big moments

After a bright start that yielded Van der Merwe's opening try, the visitors were at risk of being blown away as the French clicked into gear, knowing only a handsome victory would bring them the Six Nations title at Wales' expense.

Brice Dulin touched down to take France into a 13-10 lead, and when Stuart Hogg went to the bin with Scotland pinned back on their own line late in the first half, the Scots were on the brink.

The importance of Nick Haining's line-out steal in that last play of the half was huge. Going in at 13-10 looked much rosier than 20-10 might have been.

Haining reminded onlookers what he can be. His performance away to Ireland last season marked him out as a potential solution to Scotland's long-term number eight conundrum. The truth is he's been living off that performance ever since, offering little for Edinburgh or Scotland. At the Stade de France he was a giant - running hard, tackling harder, a soaring presence at restarts and line-outs.

There was no sense of panic when Swan Rebbadj's try re-established France's lead after Dave Cherry had crossed for Scotland, not even when Finn Russell saw red for what was deemed a forearm to the throat of Dulin 10 minutes from the end.

Scotland never let France out of sight. At 23-20 they twice turned down kickable penalties late in the game. A draw would not suffice, they were here for the win and their belief was justified.

History makers

It was the case not so long ago that a dive into the history books after a Scotland game would be to establish a new unwanted record but these guys are writing a new book.

For a team that has traditionally floundered on the road, Gregor Townsend's men have in the past six months beaten Wales away for the first time in 18 years, England away for the first time in 38 years and now France for the first time in 22 years. It's the first time in 95 years they have beaten England and France on the road in the same season.

The most curious stat in all of this is that Scotland finish fourth in the Six Nations for the second year running. It seems like scant reward for those historic feats. And while the Six Nations table may not demonstrate the team has moved forward this season, the strides have been made.

After that stunning opening-day win over England, the collapse against Wales and the underwhelming display against Ireland belied events at Twickenham - a brilliant Scotland display or a hopeless English one? The truth is it was both, but the performance at the Stade de France confirmed all that is good about this Scotland team.

The defence continues to be the cornerstone. Steve Tandy has developed a system that brought the best defensive record in last season's tournament and only Ireland, who conceded three fewer points, have been stingier this time around.

Losing Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally before the tournament kicked off could have spelled disaster for Scotland's Six Nations, but George Turner (aside from his lineout wobbles against Ireland) and Cherry have stepped up superbly. The first-choice second row of Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings was missing in Paris, but Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist stood up to the challenge. The depth of the squad is greater than it's ever been.

Pushing for Lions recognition

Surely this performance will have given Warren Gatland some food for thought as he sits down to assess this Six Nations and who has advanced their case for British & Irish Lions selection.

Jamie Ritchie, anyone? He's been largely overshadowed by his back-row partner Hamish Watson during this Six Nations, the openside wrecking ball who, despite some uncharacteristic handling errors, put in another huge shift. But Ritchie was immense in Paris. It seemed like every ruck ball France found coming back slow, there was Ritchie causing chaos. He carried relentlessly straight into the guts of the French and his was a performance of unyielding excellence.

Chris Harris moved into the dark horse category for the Lions with his display at Twickenham and while the Ireland and Wales games may have dented his chances along with several other Scots, his expert martialling of the great Virimi Vakatawa will not have gone unnoticed. He is the defensive lynchpin of this Scotland side.

Van der Merwe showed both sides of his game - the barnstorming running with ball-in-hand and the defensive vulnerabilities that were exposed in the lead up to France's first try. But his record of eight tries in 10 Test matches and the point of difference his physicality brings is likely to be tempting to Gatland.

Stuart Hogg, who has enjoyed an excellent Six Nations, is probably a stick-on for a third Lions tour. And what of the great orchestrator Finn Russell? His defence, often an overlooked element of his game, was excellent. Some of his tactical kicking, especially in the first half, was exquisite. He kept the French back-line guessing and it would be fascinating to see if he could do similar against the Springboks in the Lions red. His problem could be the list of other quality candidates vying for that particular jersey.

There are a number of Scottish players who would only grow if given the platform only the Lions can offer. The benefit to the Scotland team would be enormous.

Townsend's boys have proved they can knock over anyone, anywhere in the Six Nations. Now they must go and do it consistently and put it all together in next year's championship. No more talk of edging closer to where they want to be, of building blocks and continued improvement. That's all a given.

The pieces are there now. There's plenty more history still to be written and this team looks capable of doing it.

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