A SPIRITED Scottish performance ran smack bang into cold hard reality in the form of a powerful Welsh squad with a point to prove. The match was close but perhaps not as nail-biting as the final score suggests since Jon Welsh’s late try came inside the final minute of this match and there was no time for the restart.
The decisive score in this game had come a little earlier in proceedings, on 63 minutes when the Welsh centre Jon Davies, nicely rested after a stint in the sin bin, turned relentless Welsh pressure into points by swivelling out of Matt Scott’s despairing tackle before selling Stuart Hogg the sweetest of dummies to touch down under the posts. The contest had been nip and tuck up to that point but Wales now had a ten-point advantage inside the final quarter and never really looked like losing the match from that moment onwards.
The game was action-packed and incident-strewn with four tries shared evenly (plus another that was wiped off by the TMO), two yellow cards, a slew of penalties and more than a little rugby on show.
The Scots played their part but, not for the first time, they conceded too many kickable penalties and Leigh Halfpenny doesn’t miss many. One, to be exact, which mattered not since the Welsh full-back converted four others and added the extras for Wales’ twin tries including one from the left-hand touchline.
There were several things the Scots will rue but their inability to keep 15 men on the field must be one. After losing players in 2009 (Cross), 2010 (Godman and Lawson) and 2014 (Hogg) the Scots had to play ten minutes of yesterday’s match without the influential fly-half Finn Russell. So too did Wales when Davies briefly joined Russell on the sidelines but the visitors showed their ruthlessness by scoring ten points against 14 Scots, the home team managed just three against the short-handed Welsh.
The Scottish fly-half had an eventful match but he made several crucial errors especially when missing two touch finders, the first to lift one Welsh siege which promptly resumed, and the second to give the Scots an attacking lineout. Little things perhaps but this match was decided by a series of little things not least at the tail-end of the first half.
Trailing by six points after Rhys Webb’s 33rd-minute try the Scots blew umpteen chances to strike straight back and take an important psychological lead into the half-time break. Hogg had another hugely influential game and his kick return gave the Scots the attacking field position. A few plays later the same man popped up at first receiver and sliced through the Welsh defence but couldn’t quite get the final pass away before Halfpenny’s tackle.
The big forwards huffed and puffed but were unable to muscle their way over the line, although it wasn’t for the want of effort from the Gray brothers, and when Greig Laidlaw tried to go under the Welsh radar the little scrumhalf must have come agonisingly close. Late in the game Mark Bennett made a clean break in the midfield but no one was on his shoulder to finish the move and replacement scrummy Sam Hidalgo-Clyne got on the end of another break by Hogg only to be clobbered high by Mike Phillips. If they ever finish everything they create the Scots will thump someone.
The home team had been under the cosh in the opening ten minutes of this match as Wales were first out of the blocks. Halfpenny had already kicked the first three points of the match and the home team had barely touched the ball but when they did they made it count.
Alex Cuthbert was well tackled behind the advantage line by Alex Dunbar and isolated in the process. Russell stripped the ball and fed Richie Gray who fed Hogg. The full-back took off like the hounds of hell were at his heels when it was only Richard Hibbard. Once he had rounded the hooker Hogg had a clear run to the line.
Wales fought back with penalties and then a clinically taken try from scrum-half Webb. Utilising turnover ball the Welsh launched an attack from deep, going right at first before swinging the ball to the left. Rob Harley jumped out the line but failed to halt the attack and when Liam Williams on the left wing got the ball in space the alarm bells were ringing. Bennett tackled Davies without the ball, perhaps because the centre was riding shotgun for his winger who popped the ball back inside for the supporting Webb to dive over the line.
Russell returned to the action one minute into the second 40 and the home side won a penalty at the set scrum but lost the lineout and had to be content with Laidlaw’s second penalty when Dunbar won a turnover from Halfpenny. The Welsh full-back made amends a little later with his fourth penalty of the afternoon after Scotland were pinged for a technical infringement at the scrum but Laidlaw again reduced the deficit with his third and final penalty.
The third quarter kicking duel left Wales defending a precious three-point lead only the visitors were doing precious little defending. Hogging possession and dominating territory they set up camp deep inside the Scottish half and proceeded to pummel the thin blue line.
Twice in the space of two minutes the Scots played their get out of jail card. First up an attacking lineout drive saw winger Williams sneak over in the left hand corner only to see the try wiped off by the TMO who spotted the twin Welsh locks obstructing Harley. Then Halfpenny missed a penalty that the bookies wouldn’t have offered odds against.
The combination of luck and bravery from the home defence couldn’t last forever and Davies eventually danced his way over the line to give Wales a handy ten-point lead that proved enough on the day, if only just.
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