AN inebriated Asterix and a portly Obelix were spotted wandering aimlessly around Murrayfield yesterday lunchtime but it was Gregor Townsend and Scotland who badly needed to get a fix like this after a galling opening day defeat in Cardiff.
Going into the championship promising a festival of free-flowing modern rugby, defeat against the nation who could plausibly claim to have invented Townsend’s tactical notion of ‘organised chaos’ offered the doomsday scenario of a sudden return to the dark ages.
Had things gone awry yesterday, some pessimists out there were already stirring the pot by grimly assessing the last day visit to Rome as a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
Townsend is known far and wide as a rugby purist in the style of one of his heroes, Pep Guardiola in football, where the number of tries conceded seems less important than scoring one more than the opposition.
This was more back to basics than a return to some kind of pre-historic style of play. But after a mauling against the Welsh which was almost medieval in its savagery, it was particularly pleasing to witness a win which showcased pragmatism as much as principles.
The scoreboard still ticked over like a basketball match at stages in the first half, but yesterday Scotland rediscovered the virtue in winning ugly. Not only did 22 points from the boot of freshly-restored former captain Greig Laidlaw, one of six changes from his starting XV at the Principality Stadium, win the day once this match became a kicking contest down the stretch, but so integral did this flinty little organiser and game manager become to Scotland that the coach shrewdly shunted him to fly half for his country for the first time since starting in that role against Tonga in 2012 at the expense of Finn Russell when he wanted to accommodate the energy and impetus of Ali Price from the bench.
So thoroughly did Laidlaw , freshly returned from a broken leg and now based at Clermont Auverne, torment the French that he may test the Auld Alliance to the full when he returns there after this Championships.
With the French, flair is all part of the package; where it fits into Scotland’s national stereotype is somewhat less clear. So encouraged were the massed ranks of visitors from across La Manche that chants of Allez Les Bleus and the Marseillese boomed around this stadium with unusual vigour when they led 26-20 around the hour mark – maybe the invasion force had something to do with Brexit and the fall of the pound – but it turned out they were celebrating too soon and how the home fans cheered getting over the line in such dour, Scottish manner.
As a bunch, we are famed for not wanting to give much away, so it is little wonder if old school rugby types grumble about a team which conceded 84 points in three Autumn internationals and another 34 against Wales last week.
Still, at least Scotland could count upon its home comforts, playing at a venue where they have still lost just once – to the All Blacks – in a year. It is the kind of record watching SFA top brass Rod Petrie and Ian Maxwell would love to replicate, whether football’s future is at this stadium or merely remains at Hampden Park.
Mind you, Scotland aren’t half doing things the hard way at this year’s Six Nations. Once again, they found themselves playing from behind for most of the day, courtesy of a slip up in defence from a broken piece of play within just three minutes.
There wasn’t much that was cuddly about this brawny French side, even the Teddy who did so much of their damage. Winger Teddy Thomas that was, who will be one of Finn Russell’s team-mates at Racing 92 next season. He danced past the fly half and in a blink of the eye was gone, Stuart Hogg left bringing the supporting hooker Guilhem Guirado to the ground instead, as Thomas gleefully touched down.
Teddy part two arrived soon afterwards, touching down from his own chip kick after a mischievous bounce of the ball had eluded the covering Laidlaw.
That was one of the rare occasions where the 32-year-old wasn’t able to influence the proceedings yesterday. And to be fair, even then, his underestimated rugby IQ had put him in a position to do so had the bounce of the ball been more kind.
He may no longer be the captain – that went to John Barclay in the Autumn when he was laid low with a broken leg – but Laidlaw it was who slotted a sublime kick from the touchline to convert Sean Maitland’s first Six Nations try since 2013, the first of a perfect eight on a day when neither team missed a kick at goal.
Laidlaw it was whose cute pass was perfect for the onrushing Huw Jones, who met the line at pace and at an angle which devastated the French defence for Scotland’s second try of the game and his own eighth in 13 matches.
And Laidlaw it was who shrewdly kept the scoreboard turning over and kept in the referee’s ear when it became clear this match would be won and lost in the trenches, even if the only recent practice he had for playing fly half had come running a few practice drills in the car park in the morning.
Don’t get me wrong: France still had their chances here. There was, for instance, the small matter of a line-out maul inside the Scottish 22 as the minutes ticked down, but the home forwards managed to frustrate, perhaps a result of the tempo of play in that frantic first half which left their big forwards gasping for air.
But France it is off the back of their second narrow defeat in successive weeks, who now sense a struggle to avoid the wooden spoon. Scotland, the relief palpable on their faces, the load of pressure distinctly lighter than it was pre-match, on the other hand now become dangerous underdogs at home against England in a fortnight.
Even the most idealistic of Scottish rugby supporters would allow Townsend to dispense with all the principles he wants if he can deliver a victory in that one.