Wales crowned Six Nations champions as France lose at the death to Scotland

Wales are the worthy 2021 Six Nations champions but only after a tense, damp night at the Stade de France had delivered one last glorious twist. From first to last this has been a wild rollercoaster of a championship and the final instalment was no exception, Scotland securing a first win in Paris since 1999 to ensure a second Welsh title in three seasons.

As with last week’s thriller between France and Wales in the same arena, the drama was never less than gripping despite the rain. Nobody could remotely accuse a fired-up Scotland of playing only a bit-part role, an 85th-minute try by their wing Duhan van der Merwe triumphantly bookending a campaign which began with an equally famous win at Twickenham.

Has the best side won the tournament? The scoreboard rarely lies and, after five relentlessly competitive rounds, only the churlish would claim excessive good fortune has been involved. It has been so tight that Scotland, despite their heroics, still finished only fourth; when they hoist their trophy at their Vale of Glamorgan base there is no question Wayne Pivac’s squad will have earned it.

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Welsh supporters, watching from afar, always knew it was going to be a white-knuckle ride, with France requiring four tries and at least a 21-point winning margin to be sure of nicking the title. Before the game Gregor Townsend had been recalling the day in 1999 when Scott Gibbs’ late Wembley try secured Scotland the Five Nations title, suggesting his side would try to return the favour. Spookily, that is exactly what happened.

Not that Scotland had it remotely easy, even before they were reduced to 14 men for the last 10 minutes when Finn Russell was sent off for a mistimed fend on Brice Dulin. Trailing 23-20 at the time, France still had a sniff of a bonus point and maybe more. Instead the hosts also had Baptiste Serin sent to the sin-bin and, after Dulin had refused to settle for a three-point win by kicking the ball out, it was Scotland who enjoyed the final fling.

As he ran around Damian Penaud on the left to score his second try of the game, Van der Merwe also did his British & Irish Lions tour selection chances no harm, while Chris Harris and Hamish Watson were also outstanding in adversity. All of them delivered a lesson to France on the importance of keeping going right to the end and striking the right balance between risk and reward.

For France it could never be simply about champagne rugby: not since 2007 had Scotland lost a Six Nations game in Paris by 20 points or more. The weather was another issue, with a slippery ball not helping their expansive ambitions. On the other hand Scotland were without Sean Maitland, Premiership Rugby having been reimbursed for the release of only five English-based players on a weekend falling outside the international window.

Romain Ntamack gets under a Scotland kick.
Romain Ntamack gets under a Scotland kick. Photograph: László Gecző/Inpho/Shutterstock

The Scots’ defiant mood was further stoked by the Covid-related circumstances surrounding the fixture’s original postponement and some annoyance at being portrayed as merely making up the numbers. From their perspective, this was no carefree Barbarian-style end of term romp and a series of precise close-range drives duly yielded the game’s opening try after 14 minutes, Van der Merwe scoring from a metre out after the referee Wayne Barnes ruled the winger had legally reached out and placed the ball. When Jamie Ritchie then collared Dulin in front of his own posts and Russell put Scotland 10-3 up, France’s joie de vivre was already ebbing away.

With Russell kicking intelligently and the Scottish forwards clearly eager to reproduce their Twickenham heroics, France urgently needed to up their game. Their strength at the scrum was an obvious route back into the contest and, with pressure steadily building, their first try materialised four minutes before the interval when Dulin touched down in the right corner.

Romain Ntamack’s fine conversion extended their interval lead to 13-10, by which time Scotland had also lost their captain, Stuart Hogg, to the sin-bin after his side had given away a string of defensive penalties. It made the early moments of the second half absolutely crucial and soon enough the 14 men of Scotland were behind their own posts again. Dulin was the initial catalyst, setting sail from his own 22 and, 50 metres later, a lovely deft offload from the previously quiet Virimi Vakatawa found Penaud who successfully chased his own well-judged chip to score.

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Could France finish the job? Only over Scotland’s prone bodies, it seemed. A 53rd-minute Russell penalty narrowed the deficit to five points but Penaud stepped sensationally out of trouble to launch another thrilling attack which brought the best out of Scotland’s scramble defence once more. Then, from a close-range lineout, a Gallic disaster as the replacement Scottish hooker Dave Cherry plunged over and Russell’s conversion put Scotland 20-18 ahead with 18 minutes left.

The advantage lasted only four minutes before Swan Rebbadj swallow-dived over but even Russell’s slightly harsh dismissal could not ruin the night for Scotland and, by extension, Wales. There cannot be much wrong with international rugby when a wet weather game in an empty stadium can still enliven anyone’s Friday night; this has been a splendid tournament in anybody’s language.