Allan Massie: Winning is final piece of the jigsaw

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Martyn Williams was an outstanding flanker who almost always did the right thing. Now, retired to the comfort of the BBC studio, he delivered the right judgment on Sunday’s game: Wales won because they were more experienced. This Welsh team has been together for four years; Vern Cotter has had charge of Scotland for less than a season. He has already effected a great improvement, but there is clearly still some way to go. Wales had two real chances to score tries, and took them both. Scotland had at least half-a-
dozen, and took two of them.

For several minutes at the end of the first half, and then again for most of the last ten minutes of the match, we battered at the Welsh line. Eventually a try was scored at the death, but opportunities were wasted. Of course when you are within a yard or two of the try-line it’s natural for the forwards to believe that one more pick-and-drive will result in a score. Equally, if the ball is moved wide, then aggressive defence may mean that the next ruck or maul will take place ten or 15 yards further back. Nevertheless there are times when you should trust your backs – as we did successfully in Paris and Dougie Fife scored. After all moving the ball wide after repeated drives have sucked defenders in is something that has surely been repeatedly practised. And Scotland now have midfield backs capable of taking advantage of any gap or mismatch in the opposition defence. In like circumstances the All Blacks would have known when to go wide; Scotland didn’t

Great strides have been made under coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Great strides have been made under coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Ian Rutherford

We have our grievances – the side that loses a close match almost always does. I would make nothing of the referee’s decision to blow time a few seconds early. It’s in the highest degree improbable that we would have come back from the restart to score again. But in these days when referees go to the TMO even when it seems obvious to almost everybody else that a try has been scored, it was remarkable that Glen Jackson should have trusted his own judgment and decided that Sam Hidalgo-Clyne had played the ball forward before Mark Bennett scooped it up and was over the try-line. Television replays suggested the try was probably fairly scored, though of course the TMO might have judged differently. The referee’s confidence in his judgment was the more surprising because he had previously awarded a try to Liam Williams, and it required the intervention of the assistant referee George Clancy to draw his attention to the blatant obstruction by which two Welsh forwards took Rob Harley and other defender out of the game, to create space for the “try”. All in all I doubt if Mr Jackson will be on Vern Cotter’s Christmas card list.

Even so, despite the Welsh dominance for the first 25 minutes of the second half, two moments may be said to have determined the result. The first was Matt Scott’s missed tackle on Jonathan Davies, though one should add that the line Davies was running and the exquisite timing of Dan Biggar’s pass made it a very difficult tackle to bring off. The second moment came when Mark Bennett made a clean break in midfield, ran at least 20 yards and found no one on either shoulder up for the pass.

I’ve no doubt the players are tired of being told to take the positives out of a defeat – and would far rather consider the negatives in a victory. Nevertheless the improvement is evident. The set scrum and lineout were good, a couple of driving mauls the kind of thing we have more recently endured than executed. Defence organisation and tackling were generally excellent – we made more tackles than Wales and missed fewer. The tackle and turn-over effected by Alex Dunbar to create the opportunity for Stuart Hogg’s try were worthy of Brian O’Driscoll. The backs were sharp and inventive. Young Finn Russell reprehensibly missed touch with two penalty kicks, but still led the line with elan. He was a shade unlucky to be yellow-carded because, without throwing himself flat on the ground, I couldn’t see what else he could have done to avoid contact with the airborne Dan Biggar. Stuart Hogg was safer under the high ball than he has sometimes been, and at a time when the standard of full-back play in the championship is surely as high as it has ever been looks at least the equal of any rival.

Vern Cotter has put together a team capable of giving any side in the championship a close match – I would include even England at Twickenham in that judgment, though of course being capable of something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. We have lost two matches by a total margin of ten points, scoring three tries to two, Now they have to learn how to win close games and to take advantage of the try-scoring opportunities they have created. I would say they aren’t far from managing to do both.