We didn’t know it at the time but it turns out Scotland’s nerve-shredding endgame at the Principality last weekend was a mere warm-up routine for the jaw-dropping uncertainty of the final minutes at Murrayfield. “Rugby, bloody hell”, as a great Scotsman never said.
Time passed slowly in those closing minutes. Not a ball was kicked, not a pass made, not a ruck hit. The clock was red. The score was 20-16 to France. Every last person in the stadium had eyes fixed not on the players on the pitch but on the replays on the TV screens.
Had Scotland scored a match-winning try in the last play or not? Had Sam Skinner got the ball down on the try line to steal it?
No, said referee Nic Berry, Possibly, said TMO Brian McNeice. It played out for what felt like an age at the end of a game that felt everlasting at times. Amid the fug of confusion, McNeice pulled up replay after replay for Berry to look at and – Eureka! – appeared to be leading Berry in the direction of try.
Is that the ball on a French boot? Yes. But does the ball now touch the ground? Yes, again. “Clearly,” said Gregor Townsend, who was celebrating victory, along with a stadium in raptures, when McNeice started to moonwalk his way back from his original thought process, a change of mind that Berry now agreed with. No try. Try. No try. Game over.
Pardon? Everybody was stunned. Everybody was now being told that what they saw was not what they saw. The mind plays tricks, it seems. That thing on the line was not, in reality, a ball, but something else. A discarded scrum cap. A seagull. A trick of the light. A product of many imaginations.
Berry exited a stadium full of bewildered expressions; tens of thousands of confusion GIFs in the making. A whole lot of people bamboozled in the way people tend to be when told that up is down and down is up.
Long before the bonkerdom at the death, Nic Berry had not endeared himself to the home crowd. Nic Beret, as somebody called him.
The French, a dismal shadow of previous seasons, were negative and cynical and only occasionally sparked themselves into life. They got penalised seven times in the first half when it could have been twice that number. Scotland were on top, but they were frustrated, too.
It was a Test riddled with errors, a game that featured French-inspired games of no-chase kick tennis – “a blight on rugby” as Townsend called it.
The second half was a near-total dud, a dreary experience that put Murrayfield to sleep until that unpleasant wake-up call at the end. Scotland had enough ball and enough territory to build a handsome enough lead but they didn’t do it. They lived to regret it.
Scotland scored a terrific try after seven minutes to go 7-0 ahead, a thing of beauty involving Duhan van der Merwe, Harry Paterson, Huw Jones and then Ben White who ran away to the line. Paterson, aged 22 and with only eight senior games under his belt with one of them lasting just nine minutes, made an unexpected debut.
Informed at 09:00 that Kyle Steyn’s wife was about to go into labour and told at 10:00 that Steyn was on his way to the maternity hospital, Paterson was in at 15. Wet day, a vengeful France, a heaving Murrayfield and precious little experience. Easy.
On a grim day, Paterson was cool in the maelstrom. “One of the best Scotland debuts I’ve ever seen” was how his coach summed it up. Not many would have disagreed.
So Scotland were on their way with a seven-point lead and an opponent that was, frankly, all over the place. Midway through the opening half they had a lineout stolen for the first – but not the last – time. Then they missed touch with a penalty. Thomas Ramos fumbled one forward. Then their discipline went to pot. They conceded successive penalties, culminating with Russell making it 10-3, then 13-3.
We hoped that two of the great attacking wings of the modern game – Damian Penaud and Duhan van der Merwe – would light up the place, but they hardly featured. The Ferraris never got ball because the dumptrucks were too busy banging into each other.
The great Gael Fickou scored but there was nothing else from France. They checked Scotland’s momentum with incessant messing at the breakdown, which quickly became rugby’s Wild West. The game needed a sheriff to sort it all out. Berry didn’t fit the bill.
Scotland should have had a bigger buffer at the break, but they were wasteful. The visitors got a yellow card, for Uini Atonio’s ugly no-arms tackle on his own line that served as a microcosm of the entire day, but the Scots couldn’t score a point while he was away. They lacked tempo and cutting edge.
Still, it looked reasonably comfortable for them. If this was France’s backlash to what happened to them against Ireland in Marseille then it was more popgun than bazooka. Matthieu Jalibert knocked on, Jonathan Danty knocked on, Penaud knocked on again. Russell made it 16-10 with the boot.
France didn’t want to play. They just wanted to wait for a Scottish error. That kick tennis broke out and it was the visitors who instigated it, launching kick after kick downfield without sending any runners after those kicks. Later, Townsend called for that kind of thing to be banned.
With 10 minutes left, one piece of opportunism exploiting one chunk of space in the Scottish backfield saw them take a lead that they never deserved. Along with all the class acts on the pitch, Louis Bielle-Biarrey must have been bored senseless up to that point, but his try was classy.
When Ramos made it 20-16 to France the heist was on. Skinner swung it back in Scotland’s favour, but didn’t. He scored a match-winning try, but didn’t. The ball was grounded but, apparently, it wasn’t.
For a second week in a row, nothing made sense. Thank goodness for the gap week to come. The respite is needed.