France battled to a hard-earned victory over Scotland in Paris in a contest that offered much encouragement for new Scotland coach Vern Cotter in his first Six Nations match in charge.
Three penalties from Camille Lopez had France 9-3 ahead as the clock ticked towards half-time, only for Dougie Fife to complete a sweeping move by diving over in the corner for a well-deserved try for Scotland.
The intensity did not let up in the second half, with only a Lopez penalty adding to the score, even with Scotland being reduced to 14 men when John Beattie was yellow-carded. Lopez finally rounded out the win with a penalty in the final minute, much to the relief of the home crowd.
There was little in the history books to give Scotland hope ahead of their opener in Paris, but there was a definite look of confidence about Cotter’s men.
With largely the same side which did so well against Argentina, New Zealand and Tonga in the autumn, the new coach aimed to sack the French capital for the first time in 16 years.
However, Philippe Saint-Andre’s hosts felt they have shaken off the difficulties which have plagued them for the last three years, even if they did lose to the Pumas last time out.
The Scots handed tournament debuts to Blair Cowan, Finn Russell and Mark Bennett but were without the injured duo of Sean Maitland and Matt Scott, while Les Bleus – wearing a red kit for the first time in 56 years after ditching their traditional white change attire – gave South Africa-born scrum-half Rory Kockott his first cap.
There was barely a minute on the clock when Cowan gifted the hosts an early penalty and Lopez punished his indiscipline as he knocked his kick over with the help of a post.
But the Scots did not look fazed by the London Irish forward’s mistake and dug in to repel a couple of French surges.
Russell settled well, selling Lopez a lovely dummy, while Richie Gray took the initiative with some decent carries before a collapsed scrum allowed skipper Greig Laidlaw to level things with Scotland’s opening penalty.
Les Bleus – or Les Rouges as they have been dubbed – swarmed back up field from the kick-off and claimed another penalty as they stretched Cotter’s men one way then the other, with Lopez making no mistake with his kick.
With devastating power and some clever off-loads from the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud and Damien Chouly, the Scots, who replaced wing Tommy Symour with Fife after a hip injury ended his game after 17 minutes, were forced to scramble more than once as they held on.
In the face of such impressive attacking talent, Cotter’s men knew it was imperative they took their chances when they came along. Stuart Hogg tried with a penalty from two yards inside his own half while Russell went for a drop goal, but neither could slot through the posts.
The Scots were growing in confidence, though. Alex Dunbar sent a grubber through for Hogg after a catching out Wesley Fofana, but Yoann Huget came to the hosts’ rescue, but another indiscretion at the breakdown by Rob Harley allowed Lopez to boot over again.
The visitors’ response was first class. They muscled up field and, after pushing to within a yard of the whitewash, kept their composure to feed the ball wide for Bennett and then Euan Murray, who kept it simple as he made sure Fife dived over in the corner.
Laidlaw’s conversion hit the upright as the French clung on for a slender half-time lead.
The French steadied themselves as the game restarted and were able to extend their lead when Scotland’s try scorer suffered a rush of blood to the head.
Fife tried and failed to keep Lopez’s kick for touch in and after slumping to his backside petulantly threw the ball away. Welsh referee Nigel Owens was not amused – neither was Fife as Lopez nailed the penalty given against him.
Rob Harley was replaced by Alasdair Strokosch after 53 minutes – but was called back into action moments later as Cowan suffered a bump to the head.
France swept forward again but some brave Scottish resistance held them up a yard from scoring, while Lopez missed for the first time with his boot soon after.
Scotland hopes of overhauling the four-point deficit were hit, though, when they lost Beattie to the sin-bin with just under 20 minutes left.
The Castres No.8 was punished for clattering into the side of a ruck as France pressed into the Scots’ 22. It was the last thing Cotter’s team needed as they chased a historic win in the French capital.
Another Lopez penalty then put daylight between the teams and ensured Scotland would have to wait until the summer – when they return in World Cup warm-up action – to put right their Parisian track record.