Cape Town – Scotland’s 29-18 win over France at Murrayfield means that England have won the 2016 Six Nations with one round to go.
Scotland scored three tries, and secured consecutive Six Nations victories for only the third time in history, with a belligerent triumph over France in Edinburgh.
The visitors were largely beleaguered, errors stifling their attacking play, but crossed early through Guilhelm Guirado, and again when Gaël Fickou scored with the clock red at half-time.
On his 50th cap, skipper Greig Laidlaw kicked 11 points, but it was Stuart Hogg who stole the show.
The fullback bagged a neat try, a sublime assist, and boomed over a long-range penalty with Duncan Taylor and Tim Visser also touching down.
Everywhere you look in the championship, this Scotland team battles desperate statistics. Victory in Rome arrested one barren run of defeats, a solitary loss short of their all-time record.
This time, having never in the tournament’s 133-year tenure lost eight successive home matches, having not beaten France in ten years, and only once in the last 18 meetings, and having failed to win back-to-back Six Nations matches in all but two from 16 attempts, the burden of history remained.
In the opposition camp, for too long have France employed a monotonous bludgeoning approach, perpetuated by players capable of such magnificence. It’s akin to buying a luxury Rolls Royce and driving it like a tractor.
Their opening try though was an exercise in timing and flair, Virimi Vakatawa striding up the touchline into Scotland’s 22, finding Wesley Fofana on his inside shoulder, who flipped on to captain Guirado in turn to plunge over.
Finn Russell, the Scots’ cherished young pivot, was concussed in the build-up, and as François Trinh-Duc hooked the conversion wide, Russell was replaced by Peter Horne.
It was Horne who was caught offside from a lineout with 10 minutes gone, allowing Trinh-Duc to line up a straightforward shot at goal. Again, the flyhalf pulled his effort wide.
Alexandre’s Flanquart’s slowing down of the ball allowed Laidlaw to bang over Scotland’s first points.
And as Guirado buckled under the Scottish eight’s squeeze in the scrummage, the skipper slotted his second to nudge the hosts ahead.
With Russell gone, the playmaking duties fell to Horne and Stuart Hogg, the gifted fullback.
With seven minutes of the first half remaining, the former stepped and jinked his way towards the French posts, offloading to the towering Richie Gray, and from the next phase, Hogg cut sharply inside Fickou to reach the whitewash.
Laidlaw’s conversion attempt faded wide, but then came a moment that saw Murrayfield erupt – as much in surprise as euphoria.
From a tap penalty near halfway, Taylor, the Saracens centre, caught France cold, striding dynamically from Vakatawa’s grasp and sprinting all the way home down the right touchline.
Referee Glen Jackson consulted his TMO amid suspicions Laidlaw had tugged back a covering defender. He allowed the try to stand, and this time, the captain was accurate from the tee.
Scotland ought to have carried the precious 18-5 lead they held into the break. A maddening ruck transgression, though, stifled their impetus and allowed France one final assault in the home 22.
The hulking French forwards laid the platform with a barrage of punishing carries, Fickou capitalising to arc in at the corner, and Maxime Machenaud, kicking instead of the faltering Trinh-Duc, converted.
Hogg restored Scotland’s two-score lead with a thunderous penalty from inside his own half seven minutes after the interval.
Machenaud soon cancelled out that strike when Ross Ford entered a ruck at the side, and failed to stay on his feet.
And the French heavy artillery came within inches of a try after Scott Spedding barrelled down the left flank in pursuit of his own kick. They earned a penalty, kicked for touch, and again assembled the monsters of the pack. Scotland held firm. Machenaud was caught, the ball fumbled, and the hosts cleared.
That wayward handling became a feature of the French attack, but Machenaud cut the gap to three points with another penalty as the final quarter beckoned.
Guy Novès turned to the brutes lurking on his bench. In this French team, perhaps more so than anywhere else, big is beautiful. On rumbled Uini Atonio and Sébastien Vahaamahina, over 260kg between them. But it was a game-breaking intervention from Hogg that wedged Scotland firmly in the driver’s seat.
With Scotland deep in French territory, the full-back produced a sumptuous volleyball-style tip over his own head, leaving Visser with a clear dash to the corner.
Laidlaw’s conversion fell just short, but Vern Cotter’s side harried and pestered France in their own 22, eventually grinding out a penalty Laidlaw decisively curled over.
The French behemoths mobilised for a final raid on the Scottish line with time ticking away, but their maul was infiltrated and the ball cocooned. There ended their hope.
It’s been an awfully long time – 37 months, in fact – since Murrayfield has had a Six Nations victory to savour. At last, the cavernous bowl rocks to the sweet sound of success.