(Reuters) - France centre Virimi Vakatawa muscled over the line to break open an absorbing clash which saw his side beat a spirited but ultimately toothless Scotland 22-15 at Murrayfield on Sunday and top Group B of the Nations Cup.
The hosts struggled throughout the game to contain the Fiji-born Frenchman, who scored the only try just after halftime as he tracked a sniping break from Vincent Rattez and burst through Scotland's flailing defenders.
The home side's Duncan Weir, once again deputising for the injured Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, kicked flawlessly to ensure the sides went in 12-12 at the break despite France showing more attacking verve and edging the forward contest.
Thomas Ramos was equally accurate from the spot for the visitors with four penalties, while fly-half Matthieu Jalibert added a smartly taken drop goal for the French side.
It was an engaging contest that slowly but decisively swung France's way in the last quarter as their more powerful forward replacements wrested control.
While Scotland mounted a snarling defence throughout, they offered little bite in attack, over-reliant as is so often the case on the bustling Hamish Watson for momentum and knocking on time and again when they did threaten to break.
A missed touchfinder by Stuart Hogg from a last-minute penalty characterised Scotland's hapless approach, and their coach Gregor Townsend said his players were downcast after a game they fought hard in but never led.
"It was a bit of an arm-wrestle, we never got ahead on the scoreboard, a lot of times we came back," he said.
An outrageous early back-of-the-hand offload from the lively Rattez did not come off but was characteristic of the confidence coursing through the young French side these days.
Often stereotyped for mixing flair with maddening inconsistency and naivete, exemplified by the Mohamed Haouas red card that ruined their last match against Scotland, this French team are growing more streetwise.
Jalibert's drop goal to nudge them temporarily ahead in the first half after an exchange of penalties showed this more mature approach and had their coach nodding in appreciation.
France's defence coach Shaun Edwards echoed the sentiment when asked if his side had grown up.
"I just said that to our backs in there. I thought it was a very mature performance against a very good Scotland team," he said.
Edwards added that France had also shown patience in the battle of the boot, with both teams kicking goals when they could and testing the other at every opportunity in wet conditions with steepling clearance kicks.
"People don’t realise at home how wet the ball was, how incredibly slippy it was out there," he said.
The victory marks further impressive progress for a French team that is becoming one of the world's best, blending the thrilling attacking talent of young half-backs like Antoine Dupont with an increasingly dominant pack.
It also marks a moment of revenge for Fabien Galthie's side, after Scotland ended their Grand Slam dreams earlier this year at the same ground.
The Scots meanwhile were left to rue the end of a five-game winning streak and ponder how they can bring more options in attack after failing to threaten the French line.
They will have to wait to show any improvement, however, after their game against Fiji was cancelled following an outbreak of COVID-19 in their opponents' camp.
France lead the group with nine points ahead of Scotland on six and Italy with five and can guarantee a spot in the final if they beat the Italians at the Stade de France next Saturday.
The likely opponents in the showpiece match will be England, who need to beat a badly out-of-form Wales on the same day in their final fixture to ensure a clean sweep of Group A.
(Reporting by Lawrence White; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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